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'We've already lost so much': Libyans brace for worst as Haftar's forces advance on Tripoli

Forces loyal to former general Khalifa Haftar began their march on the Libyan capital last week
Forces loyal to Haftar head out of Benghazi on 7 April to reinforce troops advancing to Tripoli (Reuters/File photo)

Libyans have been through this before - and as Khalifa Haftar's forces push ahead with a military offensive on the Libyan capital, many are prepared for the worst.

But Jamal Mahmoud, a resident of Tripoli's Airport Road area, said he doesn't even want to imagine the city falling into Haftar's hands.

"Libya will not become the next Egypt," he told Middle East Eye.

"We’ve already lost so much. So many of our youth gave their lives to get rid of a tyrannical leader, and their lives were not lost just for another dictator to take Gaddafi's place," he said, referring to longtime Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Forces loyal to Haftar, self-styled as the Libyan National Army (LNA), began their march to the capital on Thursday in an offensive that has so far killed at least 41 people and injured dozens more.

map of Libya

The LNA is seeking to expand its control over more territory and unseat the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

Mitiga airport, the only functioning airport in Tripoli, was closed on Monday after Haftar's forces targeted it in an air strike.

"We've been hearing gunshots and explosions nearby. We don't know exactly what's going on, but whenever we hear anything we just hope Haftar's forces aren't advancing," Mahmoud said.

"We reject military rule," he added. "Haftar wants to slowly take over the whole country and force himself into power. He can't do that."

The importance of Tripoli

The military offensive came as a surprise to many, as hopes for reconciliation between the GNA and Haftar - the country's two major players - were high.

In fact, Fayez al-Serraj, Libya's prime minister and head of the GNA, was set to attend peace talks alongside Haftar, a retired general who served under Gaddafi, later this week.

GNA-allied militias in the west of the country have banded together in an effort to defend the capital from Haftar's advances.

But according to the United Nations, more than 2,800 people have already been displaced by the fighting, which has also caused power cuts across the area and shortages of running water.

Haftar wants to slowly take over the whole country and force himself into power. He can't do that

- Jamal Mahmoud, Tripoli resident

Since the 2011 popular uprisings that toppled Gaddafi, no single group has been able to keep a complete hold on Tripoli, despite multiple attempts by various armed factions to seize control of the capital.

Clashes and instability are widespread, with tensions heightened further since the GNA came to power in 2016.

Ultimately, control over Tripoli means control over Libya's strategic assets, such as air and sea ports, the Libyan Central Bank, and other key institutions.

Countrywide tensions

While previous clashes over the capital laid bare the tenuous control exercised by the GNA, an alliance of western militias has vowed to stop Haftar from taking over the city this time.

"We will die in Tripoli before we let Haftar take control of our city," a militia fighter from Tripoli, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity due to fears for his family's safety.

"We are all on high alert and ready to defend Tripoli with everything we've got," he added.

Libya's internationally backed government has been unable to rein in the widespread, unchecked possession of arms in the country.

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Thus, the GNA was forced to concede control of important areas - including the airport - to powerful militias that were in play before it was even formed.

While many attempts have been made to turn the armed forces into regular army and police forces, the GNA, as well as previous transitional authorities, has failed to achieve this, relying on the powerful and well-armed militias to offer some security to the streets of the capital.

But residents and fighters in Tripoli aren't the only ones concerned about Haftar's offensive.

Rowaidah Ali, a resident of the western coastal city of Zuwarah, whose brother belongs to a militia, told MEE that she hasn't seen him in days. "They've all been called in to be on high alert and ready to respond at a moment's notice should they need to," she said.

Zuwarah is very close to Ras Ajdir, a critical border crossing between Libya and Tunisia. The area has seen a number of clashes over the course of the war, as various actors have attempted to take control of the crossing.

"On the one hand, the fighters of Zuwarah are completely opposed to Haftar's offensive and are willing to fight against his forces until the end," Ali said.

"But on the other, they don't want to leave the city because of fears that a struggle for control of Ras Ajdir may ensue if most of the fighters are away."

'War criminal'

Under the command of Haftar, the LNA has vied for control of more territory in Libya, first pushing into the country's east and then carrying out military offensives further south and west.

The militia fighter in Tripoli, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, said he was concerned by what may happen to residents of the city who are opposed to Haftar and the LNA if his forces take control.

"His forces rooted out all opposition in Benghazi. We have so many families from Benghazi here in Tripoli. They left everything behind because they were targeted or threatened because of their views about Haftar," the fighter said.

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Since the launch of Haftar's so-called Operation Dignity in 2014, over 13,000 families have fled Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, which has been widely destroyed at the hands of Haftar's forces.

According to Human Rights Watch, armed groups with links to the LNA have participated in the illegal seizure of property belonging to those who fled, as well as in the torture and forced disappearances of people who remained in the city.

Haftar and his forces have been accused of war crimes in areas under their control.

The International Criminal Court also issued an arrest warrant in 2017 for a member of an elite LNA force. Calls for Mahmoud al-Werfalli to be handed over to the court have been repeatedly ignored, however.

"Haftar the war criminal thinks he can get away with this complete betrayal of trust," the fighter said. "He pretended to be interested in coming to a peace agreement, but instead he stabbed us in the back."

LNA forces have also besieged Derna - the last remaining stronghold of opposition to Haftar's forces in the east - since August 2016.

The group launched a ground and air offensive in May last year, as part of its attempt to drive out fighters from the Derna Protection Force (DPF), a militia made up of residents of the city.

During the offensive, dozens of people were killed and as many as 500 families were displaced.

In April 2017, human rights groups also accused LNA fighters of committing war crimes in Benghazi's Ganfouda neighbourhood. Much like Derna, LNA forces besieged Ganfouda for nearly three years, driving its residents to "near-starvation", HRW reported.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.