By Ulf Laessing and Ahmed Elumami
TRIPOLI (Reuters) – An offensive by eastern forces on the Libyan capital Tripoli stalled in the face of strong resistance on the southern outskirts on Thursday and the internationally recognized government said it had taken almost 200 prisoners.
The fighting between Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and troops under the internationally-backed Tripoli government has killed at least 56 people and forced 8,000 to flee their homes in the city in the last week, the United Nations said.
A Reuters reporter heard occasional heavy gunfire and explosions as the LNA faced off with forces of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s government around a disused former international airport and the Ain Zara district.
After sweeping up from the south, the LNA became bogged down in Tripoli’s southern suburbs 11 km (7 miles) from the city centre. Several locations have changed hands more than once.
More than 190 LNA troops were captured, officials allied to Tripoli said, accusing it of using teenagers. A total of 116 fighters were captured in Zawiya, a town west of Tripoli, and an additional 75 in Ain Zara on the southern outskirts of the capital, officials said.
In a prison in Zawiya, Reuters reporters saw prisoners, mostly young men, some wearing civilian clothes, sitting on the floor of a prison while others stood with their faces turned to a wall.
In Tripoli, officials brought families displaced by fighting on the southern fringes to shelter in schools. Red Crescent workers were heading out rations in one school as gunfire clattered in the distance.
Haftar’s push on Tripoli in Libya’s northwest is the latest turn in a cycle of factional violence and chaos in Libya dating back to the 2011 uprising that overthrew veteran dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
The European Union urged the LNA forces to stop their offensive, agreeing finally on a statement after France and Italy had sparred over how to handle the escalating conflict.
“The military attack launched by the LNA on Tripoli and the subsequent escalation in and around the capital are endangering civilians, including migrants and refugees, and disrupting the U.N.-led political process, with the risk of serious consequences for Libya and the wider region, including the terrorist threat,” the EU top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said in a statement.
France, which has oil assets in eastern Libya, has provided military assistance in past years to Haftar in his eastern stronghold, Libyan and French officials say. It was also a leading player in the war to unseat Gaddafi..
Italy supports the U.N.-backed government of Serraj.
Haftar has moved trops from southern and eastern Libya to Tripoli, stretching his lines.
Exploiting this, Islamic State’s AMAQ news agency said on that the Islamist militant group had killed six soldiers from the LNA force near Sabha in Libya’s southwest.
LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari confirmed the attack but said there had been no casualties on the LNA side.
In the latest tally of casualties from the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) said 56 people – mainly combatants though also some civilians including two doctors and an ambulance driver – had been killed, and another 266 wounded in Tripoli.
It was not clear if this included the toll given by the LNA for its soldiers – 28 killed and 92 wounded since the start of the offensive a week ago.
The number of people forced out of their homes by fighting rose to 8,075, the U.N. migration agency IOM said.
As well as the toll on civilians, the renewed conflict threatens to disrupt oil supplies, increase migration across the Mediterranean to Europe, scupper the U.N. peace plan for the country and encourage militants to exploit the chaos. Libya is a main transit point for migrants who have poured into Europe in recent years, mostly by trafficking gangs.
The LNA forces swept out of their stronghold in eastern Libya to take the sparsely populated but oil-rich south earlier this year, before heading towards Tripoli, where Serraj’s U.N.-backed government sits.
Haftar was among the officers who helped Gaddafi seize power in a 1969 coup before parting ways with him later. But critics call Haftar another strongman in Gaddafi’s mould.
Haftar has resisted U.N. pressure to accept a power-sharing settlement to stabilise the country, using his leverage as a Western ally against militant Islam in North Africa.
(Reporting by Ulf Laessing and Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli, Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi, Tom Miles in Geneva, Hesham Hajali in Cairo, John Irish in Paris and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)