Libyan army commander Khalifa Haftar on Thursday ordered his eastern military forces to advance on Tripoli, the capital of the UN-backed government, sparking fears of a major showdown with rival militias.
Haftar, who commands the Libya National Army (LNA) from its eastern base of Benghazi, earlier took over the town of Gharyan, a town 100km south of the capital, Tripoli, signifying an escalation in the years-long power struggle in Libya.
In an audio recording posted on the LNA’s media office Facebook page, Haftar described his forces’ move as a “victorious march” to “shake the lands under the feet of the unjust bunch.”
“We are coming Tripoli, we are coming,” he said.
Haftar urged his forces to enter the city peacefully and only raise their weapons “in the face of those who seek injustice and prefer confrontation and fighting.”
He also urged his forces not to open fire on any civilians or those who are unarmed.
“Those who lay down their weapons are safe, and those who raise the white banner are safe,” he said.
The audio recording came as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the North African country and expressed fears of new confrontations. It put at risk upcoming peace talks brokered by the UN aimed at drawing a roadmap for new elections.
The oil-rich country, which has been in turmoil since the NATO-backed removal of its long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has at least two rival administrations: the internationally recognised government based in Tripoli, headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj; and another in the eastern city of Tobruk, which is allied with the renegade general Haftar.
Libya’s highest religious authority, meanwhile, called on the public to take to the streets against Haftar’s campaign aimed at capturing the capital.
“The Libyan people should resist and fight against Haftar’s forces in Tripoli in order not to see crimes against humanity committed in [the eastern cities of] Derna and Benghazi,” Grand Mufti Sadiq Al-Ghariani told Al Jazeera.
“It is no longer a secret that the UN mission in the country cooperates with Haftar.”
Tensions rose on Wednesday after Haftar’s forces said they had moved towards the western part of the country, prompting the Tripoli-based government to declare a military alert.
On Wednesday, the LNA’s media centre said on Facebook that several units had headed “to the western region to cleanse it of the remaining terrorist groups”.
Its statement gave no details, but the area appears to be the coastal road linking the eastern city of Benghazi, the LNA’s main base, with Tripoli in western Libya. An accompanying video showed a column of dozens of armed vehicles moving along a road, but it was not immediately possible to identify their location or destination.
Serraj, who relies on patches of armed groups with flexible loyalties, called the eastern advance an “escalation” and urged Haftar’s forces to “stop using the language of threats”.
He said he had ordered pro-government forces to prepare to “face all threats … whether from terrorist groups, criminals, outlaws and all who threaten the security of every Libyan city”.
In response to the LNA’s advance, armed groups in Misrata city, which back the Tripoli-based government, said on Thursday they would block an advance on the capital.
The Misrata-based forces “stand ready…to stop the cursed advance” of the LNA, they said in a statement, as cited by AFP news agency.
‘No military solution’
In a joint statement issued on Thursday, the United States, France, Britain, Italy and the United Arab Emirates called for an immediate de-escalation of tensions in Libya.
“Our governments oppose any military action in Libya and will hold accountable any Libyan faction that precipitates further civil conflict,” the statement said.
The governments said they were “deeply concerned” by fighting near Gharyan, and “urge all parties to immediately de-escalate tensions.”
“At this sensitive moment in Libya’s transition, military posturing and threats of unilateral action only risk propelling Libya back toward chaos,” they said.
“We strongly believe that there is no military solution to the Libya conflict.”
‘De facto commander’
In recent years, Haftar has expanded his foothold in large parts of Libya and has repeatedly expressed his intention to march on Tripoli.
Reporting from the capital, Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed said on Thursday that “things are moving from bad to worse”.
“It seems that the rival factions on the ground are not listening to the UN chief’s warnings,” he added, calling the situation in Tripoli “tense”.
“People are afraid that if Haftar’s forces enter Tripoli, if they engage in military confrontations with local armed groups, there could be another war,” said Abdelwahed.
“We understand that local armed groups have vowed to face Haftar’s forces if they approach Tripoli.”
The rising tensions came as the UN is preparing to hold a conference later this month in the southwestern city of Ghadames to discuss a political solution to prepare the country for long-delayed elections and avoid a military showdown.
Abdelwahed said it was possible that Haftar wants to reach Tripoli before the conference “so he could impose himself as a de facto security commander in the western area”.
Analysts doubt the LNA is capable of launching a full-scale attack as it has stretched itself with the southern advance and is reliant on tribesmen and other auxiliary forces.