World

Libyan commander orders troops to Tripoli as 5 nations urge factions to 'immediately de-escalate tensions'

The joint statement Thursday from the U.S., France, Italy, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom comes after Libyan army commander Khalifa Hifter ordered his forces to march on Tripoli, the capital of the UN-backed government.

Khalifa Hifter has previously said 'liberating' capital is ultimate goal

Khalifa Hifter, who commands the self-styled Libya National Army, has said that 'liberating' Tripoli is his ultimate goal. (Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press)

The United States and four allies are urging competing factions in Libya to "immediately de-escalate tensions."

The joint statement Thursday from the U.S., France, Italy, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom comes after Libyan army commander Khalifa Hifter ordered his forces to march on Tripoli, the capital of the UN-backed government.

The five nations say that "at this sensitive moment in Libya's transition, military posturing and threats of unilateral action only risk propelling Libya back toward chaos."

Earlier, forces loyal to Marshal Khalifa Hifter — who commands the self-styled Libya National Army that's based in the country's east — took control overnight of the town of Gharyan, 50 kilometres from Tripoli, without major clashes.

Hifter described his forces' move as a "victorious march" to "shake the lands under the feet of the unjust bunch."

"We are coming Tripoli, we are coming," he said.

He ordered forces not to open fire on any civilians saying, "whoever raises the white banner is safe."

'Deeply concerned' by troop movements

The order to his Libya National Army, posted in an audio recording online, came as United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres visited the North African country and issued "a very strong appeal ... for all military movements to stop."

Hifter also put at risk upcoming peace talks between Libyan rivals brokered by the UN that are aimed at drawing a roadmap for new elections.

At Britain's request, the UN Security Council scheduled an emergency closed-door meeting Friday afternoon to discuss the unfolding developments.

Guterres's remarks come during his visit to Libya, which began on Wednesday. Guterres is the second UN chief to visit Libya since the 2011 uprising that toppled and later killed Libya's longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi. Ban Ki-moon visited in October 2014.

Guterres said on Twitter that he is "deeply concerned by the military movement taking place in Libya and the risk of confrontation."

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for 'calm and restraint' amid ongoing violence in Libya. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Skirmishes were reported overnight in the mountain district of al-Assabaah, near Gharyan, in which two people — a resident and a militiaman — were killed, according to the media office of Hifter's forces.

The European Union's mission to Libya on Thursday also expressed concern over "the military buildup underway in Libya and the escalatory rhetoric, which seriously risks leading to an uncontrollable confrontation."

Hifter's army has waged a military campaign, spreading its footprint from eastern Libya, where it first battled mostly Islamic militias and Islamist groups, starting in 2014. The campaign then extended southward as Hifter's forces took control of key towns and border crossings earlier this year and now is pushing west, toward Tripoli.

Hifter, who is backed by Egypt and Gulf Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates, has labelled his rivals "terrorists" and said on more than one occasion that "liberating" Tripoli is his ultimate goal.

Libya split between rival governments in the east and west after descending into chaos following the 2011 NATO-supported uprising that toppled Moammar Gadhafi.

Since Gadhafi's ouster and killing, Libya has faced two rival administrations and an array of militias fighting over power and oil fields.

Tripoli is under control of a weak UN-backed government and aligned militias, which are rival to the east-based administration and Hifter's army.

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