TUNIS - A self-styled Libyan army slowed down its push on the country’s capital over concerns for civilians caught up in the violence as the U.N. refugee agency said Monday that the fighting for Tripoli has displaced more than 32,000 people.
Fighting erupted on April 5, pitting the self-styled Libyan National Army, led by commander Khalifa Haftar and aligned with a rival government in the east, against militias affiliated with Tripoli’s U.N.-supported government.
The clashes threaten to ignite a new civil war in Libya on the scale of the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The death toll from this month’s fighting climbed to 254, including combatants and civilians, the World Health Organization said Sunday. At least 34 more people died in the past two days, WHO said; 1,228 were wounded.
Explosions shook the Libyan capital Tripoli late Saturday after an airstrike, residents said, in an escalation of a two-week offensive by eastern forces on the city held by the internationally recognized government.
A Reuters reporter and several interviewed residents said they saw an aircraft circling for more than 10 minutes over the capital with a humming sound before opening fire on a southern suburb, scene of the heaviest fighting between the rival forces.
Reuters was unable to confirm whether an aircraft or unmanned drone was behind the strike, which triggered heavy anti-aircraft fire
Since launching his push, which many see as a power grab for Tripoli, Haftar’s forces have captured the districts of Gharyan and Qasr Bani Ghashi,r along with several smaller towns. They also seized the capital’s shuttered old airport.
Fighting is now underway for control of Ain Zara and Azizyia, two larger towns near Tripoli, and in the Abu Salim district, about 7 kilometers (4 miles) from Tripoli center.
Abdelhadi Lahouij, the top diplomat for the east-based government, told The Associated Press in Tunis on Sunday that Haftar’s push was slowed down because of concerns for civilians in the greater Tripoli area, estimated to number about 3 million.
If the civilians had not been taken into account, the battle would not have lasted even a week, he said.
“The army is today 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from Tripoli. It controls the (old) airport and the bridge that connects the airport to the city center,” Lahouij said.
The White House said on Friday that President Donald Trump spoke by phone on Monday to Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar and discussed "ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya."
The statement said Trump "recognized Field Marshal Haftar's significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya's transition to a stable, democratic political system."
It was unclear why the White House waited several days to announce the phone call.
On Thursday, both the United States and Russia
He also lauded President Donald Trump’s call to Haftar last week expressing U.S. support for the Libyan commander’s perceived stance against terrorism and Haftar’s role in “securing Libya’s oil resources.”
A White House statement on Friday also said “the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”
Trump’s phone call was a step “in the right direction,” Lahouij said.
Since Gahdafi’s ouster, Libya has slid into chaos, governed by rival authorities in the east and in Tripoli, each backed by various militias and armed groups fighting over resources and territory.
Haftar has vowed to unify the country. He has led previous campaigns against Islamic militants and other rivals in eastern Libya, and has received support from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and France.