Eastern Libyan forces on Thursday took full control of Gharyan, a town about 100 km (60 miles) south of the capital Tripoli, bringing their conflict with Libya’s internationally recognized government to a potentially dangerous new level.
The capture of Gharyan after skirmishes on Wednesday with forces allied to Tripoli Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj followed a rapid thrust westwards by Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) from his eastern stronghold of Benghazi.
The developments signified a serious escalation of the power tussle in Libya that has dragged on since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Libya has been divided between the Western-backed government in Tripoli and a parallel administration allied to Haftar since Gaddafi’s downfall.
“We fully control Gharyan and right now as we speak I’m driving through the town,” Abdelsalam al-Hassi, commander of the operation to secure western Libya said.
In response, militias in the coastal city of Misrata, which opposes the eastern forces, held an urgent meeting to mobilize their fighters, residents said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres meanwhile appealed for restraint by the rival factions.
Gharyan, lying in the Western mountains about 100 km due south of the capital, had been allied to the Tripoli government although some Haftar supporters were also based there.
The two sides fought skirmishes on Wednesday but these had ceased, town mayor Yousef al-Bdairi said earlier on Thursday.
A town resident told Reuters: “The town now is under control of the army who came from the east and I can see their vehicles with their Libyan National Army logo.”
A video posted online showed LNA vehicles, including pickups mounted with heavy machineguns, inside the town.
Guterres, who arrived in Tripoli on Wednesday to promote peace talks, said in a tweet before Gharyan’s capture that he was deeply concerned by the military movements and the risk of confrontation.
“There is no military solution. Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems. I call for calm and restraint as I prepare to meet the Libyan leaders in the country,” he said.
The developments are a setback for the United Nations and Western countries which have been trying to mediate between Serraj and Haftar, who met in Abu Dhabi last month to discuss a power-sharing deal.
A national conference is set to follow this month to agree on a road map for elections to resolve the prolonged instability in Libya, an oil producer and a hub for refugees and migrants trekking across the Sahara in the hope of reaching Europe.
Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as bulwark against Islamists. His opponents see in him as a new Gaddafi.
His forces control the east and recently expanded to southern Libya.
Their advance took diplomats and analysts by surprise while they were focused on neighboring Algeria, where President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned on Tuesday after weeks of protests.
The Tripoli government said it had put its forces on maximum alert but it relies on armed groups with often flexible loyalty – several groups dumped the last government to support Serraj when he took power in 2016.
A group of militias in Misrata said they were ready to confront the LNA.
“All the leaders in the city demand Serraj to give orders to launch immediately an operation,” they said in a statement.
Analysts doubt the LNA is capable of launching a full-scale attack as it has stretched itself with the southern advance and it also relies on tribesmen and other auxiliary forces.