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article imageUN's Libya envoy warns Tripoli fight could spark 'conflagration'

By Imed Lamloum (AFP)     Apr 18, 2019 in World

The UN's Libya envoy warned Thursday of "a widening conflagration" in the North African country, as deadly clashes spread south to a key military base.

Khalifa Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), based in the country's east, launched an offensive on April 4 to take Tripoli, the western seat of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

Envoy Ghassan Salame told AFP that Haftar's push had ground to a bloody stalemate with pro-government forces around the capital.

"After the very first successes of the Libyan National Army two weeks ago, we are witnessing a military deadlock," he said.

But Haftar's force said clashes had erupted at a military base it holds some 650 kilometres (400 miles) south of Tripoli, killing four people and leaving six wounded.

LNA spokesman Ahmad Al-Mesmari accused a "terrorist group" of launching an attack on the Tamenhant air base near Sabha, but said LNA fighters had repulsed the assault.

The UN said it was "deeply concerned about reports of clashes between the two parties" around the base and "the potential for widening confrontations in other areas of the country".

- 'War crimes' -

In a symbolic move, the GNA on Thursday issued an arrest warrant against Haftar for allegedly ordering deadly air strikes against civilian areas.

A spokesman said it was seeking an international arrest warrant against Haftar for "war crimes", as two UN experts were expected in Tripoli to investigate the origin of rocket fire that killed six people the previous day.

The unity government's interior ministry also lashed out at France, accusing it directly for the first time of supporting Haftar and saying it was cutting security ties with Paris.

A French foreign ministry official dismissed the allegation as "completely unfounded".

UN envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame speaking to AFP in Tripoli
UN envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame speaking to AFP in Tripoli

Salame told AFP that "international divisions" prior to the assault on Tripoli had emboldened Haftar, who is backed by Russia and seen by his allies Egypt and the United Arab Emirates as a bulwark against Islamists.

"There are countries that have invested in Mr Haftar as a champion of the fight against terrorism," Salame said, without naming any countries.

"They will not drop him now even if they do not agree with his attack on Tripoli."

Haftar's offensive forced the UN to postpone a national conference that was to draw up a roadmap to elections in a bid to turn the page on years of turmoil since the 2011 ouster of dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

"We worked for a whole year to prepare something that has no precedent," he said, saying the plan had been to "bring the country out of chaos".

Instead, the political process was on hold and "these efforts are going up in smoke a little like the attic of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris", he said.

- Wrangling at UN -

The renewed fighting has killed over 200 people and left more than 900 wounded, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

More than 25,000 have been displaced, according to the International Organization for Migration.

World powers have long been divided on how to stabilise Libya, wracked by violence since Kadhafi's fall. Haftar's offensive has again highlighted those divisions.

"There are interests in Libya. It's a country rich in oil," Salame said. This "makes companies -- oil companies, construction companies, etc -- salivate".

Haftar has presented his force as wartorn Libya's national army
Haftar has presented his force as wartorn Libya's national army
Abdullah DOMA, AFP

But he added that some countries had supported one camp or another for "reasons that are not necessarily economic".

The UN Security Council is split on how to address the latest crisis.

Negotiations this week on a draft resolution demanding a ceasefire in Tripoli have failed to yield agreement.

The UN said that Salame would brief the Security Council Thursday "in closed consultations on the latest developments on the ground".

Britain put forward a draft resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and de-escalation, but Russia objected to clauses that criticised Haftar's offensive as a threat to Libya's stability.

Britain proposed a slightly watered-down version on Wednesday but the three African countries on the council -- Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, South Africa -- insisted it should cover the need to protect civilians, including migrants.

Moscow said even the amended version was "still far away from accommodating our concerns", according to a note from the Russian UN mission.

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