CAIRO • Libya is edging closer to full-blown civil war as forces of an eastern commander clashed with pro-government militias near the capital Tripoli, and an effort by the United Nations chief failed to stop the offensive.
A battle for control of Tripoli would mark the most significant escalation of violence in oil-and gas-rich Libya since the toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 following a populist rebellion backed by Nato bombings.
After meeting last Friday with the renegade warlord, General Khalifa Haftar, in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a tweet that he was leaving Libya "with a heavy heart and deeply concerned".
Gen Haftar reportedly told Mr Guterres that his offensive on Tripoli will continue, according to the Al-Arabiya TV network.
Gen Haftar's forces, who call themselves the Libyan National Army (LNA), pushed towards the capital and clashed with militias who support the UN-installed and Western-backed government.
Forces loyal to the government in Tripoli conducted air strikes to try to halt the march on the capital by Gen Haftar's troops, officials said. Fighter jets struck positions near Tripoli held by Gen Haftar's forces last Friday and yesterday, LNA media official Aguila Saber and local city official Hamed al Nuwaiser said by phone.
With dozens of militias in the heavily populated capital, urban warfare could cause heavy civilian casualties. It also would deepen the chaos and lawlessness that have already turned Libya into a smuggling hub for migrants to Europe, and allowed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants to establish a former foothold in the coastal city of Sirte.
More insecurity could pave the way for the militants to regroup, and set off another rush of people fleeing to neighbouring countries or over dangerous sea routes in the Mediterranean.
Gen Haftar was a former general in Gaddafi's army who defected and then spent years living in northern Virginia. He returned to Libya to take part in the revolution against Gaddafi.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G-7) bloc of rich nations implicitly warned Gen Haftar last Friday against an advance towards Tripoli.
"We firmly believe that there is no military solution to the Libyan conflict," top diplomats from G-7 nations said in a statement sent amid talks in western France. "We strongly oppose any military action in Libya. Any Libyan actor or faction that precipitates further civil conflict are harming innocent people and standing in the way of the peace that Libyans deserve," the statement said, without naming Gen Haftar directly.
WASHINGTON POST, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS