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Haftar's forces defy calls for Libya calm, press on with Tripoli offensive

GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj accuses Haftar of betrayal, says he will find 'nothing but strength and firmness'
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed GNA arrive in suburb of Tripoli on Saturday from their base in Misrata (AFP)

Forces loyal to Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar on Saturday pressed on with an offensive towards Tripoli, defying international calls to end hostilities that risk plunging the country into civil war.

Haftar’s campaign to impose stability through military force has won him some support from Libyans weary after years of war and political stalemate, the Wall Street Journal said. Others regard him as a dictator in the making.

His Tripoli offensive marks a turning point in the long political struggle since the fall of leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The crisis has hobbled Libya’s oil production, transformed the country into a pathway for migration to Europe and allowed the Islamic State (IS) group to establish a foothold, the WSJ reported.

Still, the advance of pro-Haftar fighters has been slowed by forces loyal to Libya's internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which resides in the capital, AFP said.

For the first time, forces backing the GNA launched air strikes on Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) - which vowed to retaliate - about 50km (30 miles) south of Tripoli.

Pro-government forces in Tripoli confirmed that they had targeted Haftar's men with "intensive strikes".

The air strikes came as fresh fighting flared on Saturday south of Tripoli between the pro-government forces and Haftar's troops despite calls from the international community to halt the offensive.

GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj accused Haftar of betraying him. "We have extended our hands towards peace, but after the aggression that has taken place on the part of forces belonging to Haftar... he will find nothing but strength and firmness," Sarraj said.

Several European foreign ministers warned Haftar to halt any further military action, with France's Jean-Yves Le Drian warning "there will be no military victory".

World leaders call on Haftar to 'halt' his troop advance to Tripoli
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German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said there should be pressure on all the actors in Libya, "especially general Haftar".

A similar stance was taken by the UN Security Council, which following a closed-door emergency meeting on Friday said those responsible for re-igniting the conflict would be held responsible.

The appeal for Haftar to halt his offensive was unanimously backed by the council, including Russia, which has previously supported the general.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday during a visit to Cairo that Libyans should "decide their future themselves" through "inclusive" dialogue, "without any sort of artificial dates that some are trying to force upon them from outside".

Libya has struggled to counter unrest since Gaddafi’s overthrow, leaving dozens of militias to fill the void and ally with either the GNA or the rival administration in the east backed by Haftar.

At least one armed group from Misrata - whose forces are mostly loyal to the UN-backed government - arrived on Saturday in east Tripoli to join the counter-offensive, according to an AFP photographer.

"We are waiting for orders to repel any advance by the enemy towards Tripoli," said the group's spokesman, Khaled Abu Jazia.

Dozens of armed vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns were gathered in Tajura, in the suburbs east of the capital.

Haftar forces capture old Tripoli airport after clashes near Libyan capital
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Tripoli residents have expressed concern that large-scale fighting may break out and have begun stockpiling food and petrol.

On Saturday, long queues formed at petrol stations and supermarkets, an AFP journalist said.

"We must store everything we need for the family, just in case, especially those with young children," said Farida, a mother pushing a full shopping cart.

"You never know how long it will last," she added.

Haftar's forces were driven back a few kilometres on Friday evening, after briefly seizing Tripoli's international airport, which was destroyed in 2014.

On Friday, they were also pushed back from a key checkpoint west of the capital, less than 24 hours after seizing it in their lightning offensive towards Tripoli.

The latest escalation in the conflict-wracked country comes just days ahead of a UN-backed conference intended to unite Libya's rivals and pave the way for elections.

Despite the Tripoli flare-up, UN envoy Ghassan Salame insisted the 14-16 April talks in the Libyan city of Ghadames would go ahead.

"We are determined" to hold the talks "as scheduled" unless prevented by serious obstacles, Salame told a news conference.

"We want to reassure Libyans that we will stay alongside the Libyan people to make the political process a success without resorting to escalation."

Libya's unity government was created at UN-backed talks in 2015, but it has struggled to assert control, while a number of international initiatives since have also failed to unite the country.