At least 51 killed, more injured in Tripoli fighting, Libya official says

A warplane has attacked Tripoli's only functioning airport as eastern forces advancing on the Libyan capital disregarded international appeals for a truce in the latest of a cycle of warfare since Moammar Gadhafi's fall in 2011.

Battle has closed Libya's main airport, another blow to setting long-delayed elections

Residents carry the body of a member of the Libyan pro-internationally recognized government forces, who was killed during clashes in Tripoli on Monday. The number of deaths continue to mount as violence persists. (Ismail Zitouny/Reuters)

A warplane attacked Tripoli's only functioning airport on Monday as eastern forces advancing on the Libyan capital disregarded international appeals for a truce in the latest of a cycle of warfare since Moammar Gadhafi's fall in 2011.

Casualties were mounting in fighting that also threatens to disrupt oil supplies, fuel migration to Europe and wreck UN plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in east and west.

The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar — a former general in Gadhafi's army — said 22 of its soldiers had died in recent days as they closed in on the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.

A spokesperson for the Tripoli-based Health Ministry said Monday that fighting in the south of the capital had killed at least 51 people, including fighters and civilians, and wounded 80.

Mitiga International Airport, in an eastern suburb, was bombed and closed, authorities said.

Passengers could be seen leaving the terminal, a Reuters correspondent at Mitiga airport said.

A crater is seen at the blast site after an airstrike at Mitiga airport in Tripoli on Monday. (Hani Amara/Reuters)

The UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, condemned the airstrike as "a serious violation of humanitarian law."

A spokesperson for the LNA confirmed the strike, saying his force had not targeted civilian planes, only a MiG warplane parked at Mitiga.

That left Misrata airport, 200 kilometres to the east down the coast, as the closest option for Tripoli residents.

Haftar's LNA, which backs the eastern administration in Benghazi, took the oil-rich south of Libya earlier this year before advancing fast through largely unpopulated desert regions toward the coastal capital.

Seizing Tripoli, however, is a much bigger challenge for the LNA. It has conducted airstrikes on the south of the city as it seeks to advance along a road toward the centre from a disused former international airport.

On Sunday evening, LNA forces had moved up from the airport, coming as close as 11 kilometres from the city centre before retreating, residents said.

However, the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, 59, is seeking to block the LNA with the help of allied armed groups who have rushed to Tripoli from nearby Misrata port in pickup trucks fitted with machine guns.

'Critical and difficult juncture'

Serraj who comes from a wealthy business family, has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a UN-brokered deal boycotted by Haftar. His Tripoli government has reported 11 deaths in the last few days, without saying on which side.

The United Nations says 3,400 people had been displaced by clashes and violence around Tripoli. Many more could flee, though some were trapped.

"The United Nations continues to call for a temporary humanitarian truce to allow for the provision of emergency services and the voluntary passage of civilians, including those wounded, from areas of conflict," it said in a statement.

UN envoy Salame met Serraj in his office in Tripoli on Monday to discuss "this critical and difficult juncture," the world body's Libya mission said.

The violence has jeopardized a UN plan for an April 14-16 conference to plan elections and end anarchy that has prevailed since the Western-backed toppling of Gadhafi eight years ago.

The UN refugee agency expressed anxiety about thousands caught in crossfire and detention centres in conflict zones in a "rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation."

As well as the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, Canada and the G7 bloc have all urged a ceasefire, a halt to Haftar's advance and return to negotiations.

Haftar casts himself as a foe of extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mould of Gadhafi, whose four-decade rule saw torture, disappearances and assassinations.

"The U.S. is deeply concerned about fighting near Tripoli," State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said early Monday.

"We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar's forces. We continue to press Libyan leaders, together with our international partners, to return to political negotiations."

France, Italy jockey for influence

The LNA says it has 85,000 men, but this includes soldiers paid by the central government that it hopes to inherit. Its elite force, Saiqa (Lightning), numbers some 3,500, while Haftar's sons also have well-equipped troops, LNA sources say.

Analysts say Haftar has swelled his ranks with Salafist fighters and tribesmen, as well as Chadians and Sudanese from over the southern borders, claims dismissed by the LNA.

Since NATO-backed rebels ousted Gadhafi, Libya has been a transit point for hundreds of thousands of migrants trekking across the Sahara in hope of reaching Europe across the sea.

LNA members, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, headed out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advance toward Tripoli on Sunday. (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters)

Islamic State staged some high-profile attacks in Tripoli last year, but the militant group has largely retreated to the desert of southern Libya since the loss of its former stronghold in Sirte late in 2016.

France, which has close links to Haftar, said it had no prior warning of his push for Tripoli and denied it was secretly undermining the peace process, a diplomatic source said.

France established close relations with Haftar under the previous government of François Hollande and his defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

When current French President Emmanuel Macron named Le Drian his foreign minister, Paris doubled down support to Haftar, in close alignment with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to UN reports.

France's stance has created tensions with Italy, which has sought a leading role to end the turmoil in its former colony that has played into the hands of militants and smugglers.