Libyan military strongman orders march on Tripoli; UN and other countries call for restraint
'We are coming'
"We are coming Tripoli, we are coming," Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the military strongman who heads the Libyan National Army (NLA), said in an audio recording posted on the army's Facebook page on Thursday. Haftar ordered his forces to march towards Tripoli, after they took over Gharyan, a town 100 km south of the city.
This has led to a real danger of a major face-off between rival militias and the UN-backed government in Tripoli, headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.
The LNA by now has obtained control of two-thirds of Libya, including almost the entire southern region, known as Fezzan, complete with its oil fields and major population centres.
Haftar's order calling for a march on the capital city came a day after United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Libya to broker a political process leading to peace. Things took a turn and, fearing escalation, Guterres called on Libyan forces to show restraint.
Guterres said on Twitter on Friday morning that he was flying east from Tripoli to Tobruk and Benghazi. "My aim remains the same: avoid a military confrontation. I reiterate that there is no military solution for the Libyan crisis, only a political one," he tweeted.
Watch the video player above to see Guterres' plea for military moves to stop.
Guterres said later on Friday he was leaving Libya with a "heavy heart" and was deeply concerned after he held a meeting with Haftar.
"I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli," Guterres tweeted.
Calling for immediate de-escalation, the governments of the US, UAE, France, Italy and UK issued a statement expressing their deep concern about the possibility of conflict.
“At this sensitive moment in Libya’s transition, military posturing and threats of unilateral action only risk propelling Libya back toward chaos,” they said in a joint statement released in Washington by the State Department. “We strongly believe that there is no military solution to the Libya conflict.”
On Friday night, Eastern Libyan forces seized the former Tripoli International Airport on the southern outskirts of the capital, a spokesman said.
G7 "strongly opposes any military action"
As Haftar's forces advanced on Friday, G7 foreign ministers said that they were strongly opposed to military action in Libya and implicitly warned the easter Libyan commander against continuing his advance on the capital.
"We firmly believe that there is no military solution to the Libyan conflict," the foreign ministers from France, Britain, Germany, United States, Italy, Japan and Canada said in a statement.
"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 U.N. special envoy to Libya said on Saturday he was determined to hold Libya's national conference on time despite the ongoing fighting.
The United Nations is planning to hold a conference in the southwestern town of Ghadames from April 14 to 16 to discuss elections as a way out of the country's eight-year-long conflict.
How did Libya get here?
Libya's institutions, divisions and power structures are incredibly nuanced, but here is a broad view of the situation.
After the Arab Spring uprisings and the subsequent fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya was forced into a power vacuum and instability. It has since been ravaged by turmoil and strife, splintered across political, military and power lines.
The fractures in the north African state allowed space for a militant uprising.
Haftar saw a campaign through against this rise of Islamist militias in and around Benghazi. It took more than three years to complete and left parts of Libya’s second city in ruins.
Affiliates of the self-styled Islamic State group were expelled from Gaddafi's home town of Sirte in 2016 by local forces supported by U.S. air strikes. Oil production partially recovered as blockaders were sidelined, and migrant smuggling networks were curbed under strong Italian pressure.
But while power remains split between two main factions, these victories cannot truly come to fruition.
Elected vs UN-backed
Currently, the country has two rival governments:
In the east is the House of Representatives, based in the cities of Tobruk and Al-Bayda. This government is the only one with an electoral mandate and, perhaps more importantly right now, it is backed by the LNA, who are making moves towards Tripoli in a potential power seizure.
In the west is the Government of National Accord, based in the capital, Tripoli. This government, headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, is recognised by the UN.
These two administrations are not the only ones vying for power and control in this oil-rich country. Several militias, mostly in the south, wield considerable influence; many have tribal alliances.
Also in the south, minority groups such as the Tubu and Arab tribes fight for control of cross-border smuggling routes. The region is riven with human traffickers from Africa.
East v West not just governmental
Over three-quarters of the nation's oil is produced in the east of the country. Oil is, of course, the main source of revenue in Libya so there is resentment as those in the east believe they receive fewer resources than those in the west despite their area being hugely more profitable.
What has the UN done recently?
Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Ghassan Salamé, and the United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) have most recently stepped up efforts to ensure credible and peaceful elections.
Salamé announced a fortnight ago that the National Conference will take place from 14 to 16 April 2019 in Ghadames, Libya.
However, Haftar's latest move may throw that into doubt.