MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - In a warehouse packed with rocket launchers, grenades and rifles in the Libyan city of Misrata, workers sweat in the summer heat as they install an anti-aircraft gun on a pickup truck.
They are preparing to defend Tripoli, 200 km (125 miles) to the east, against military commander Khalifa Haftar, a self-proclaimed foe of Islamists who launched a surprise attack in April against a U.N.-backed government based in the capital.
Initially shocked by the audacity of Haftar’s assault, armed groups in western Libya have improved coordination and revived armories from Libya’s 2011 revolution against Muammar Gaddafi in order to equip their fighters.
Their early disarray allowed Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) force, allied to a parallel administration in eastern Libya, to reach Tripoli’s southern outskirts.
But since then defenders drawn from Misrata and Tripoli have managed to hold off Haftar’s attack, even regaining some turf.
Western diplomats expect a long war — possibly until year-end — as both sides seem confident of their prospects and enjoy backing from foreign powers who are not pushing for a ceasefire.
Such turmoil could disrupt oil flows and increase migration across the Mediterranean - a nightmare scenario for European countries: Libya has become the main conduit for African migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe.
For now, both sides seem intent on a military solution.
Turkey has supplied drones and armored trucks to Tripoli’s defenders, diplomats and Tripoli officials say. This has helped balance out previous supplies by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to LNA, they say.
Perhaps as important is the fighting spirit in Misrata, the main bastion against Haftar, where the largest mobilization is underway since 2011 when the city helped topple Gaddafi.
Thousands fighters have skipped their regular jobs to rush to the Tripoli front, supported by women cooking meals, rich businessmen and mechanics like Haj Sadoun and by his team of technicians.
“I started this workshop in 2011 during the revolution and have never stopped. I’ve developed the (weapons) skills since then,” he said, standing in his warehouse. A dozen gun trucks were parked waiting to be served.
Some 10 trucks are serviced daily by workmen who repair their mounted guns or fix protective metal plates.
It’s not only armed groups who support Sadoun — a donation box at the entrance to his premises is used by businessmen and residents to keep him going.
His warehouse contains stockpiles of old guns looted from Gaddafi’s arsenals and now stored for use as spare parts. Among the weapons lies an ammunition box that carries the name “Jamahiriya” — a term used by Gaddafi for Libya.
Misrata’s fighters make up the main force defending Tripoli, where armed groups are less organized and tend to have flexible loyalties: Major Tripoli groups have not fully mobilized against Haftar, apparently seeking to keep their options open.
Misratis say the Tripli groups lack the “Misrata spirit” developed in 2011 when Gaddafi besieged the city for three months. Misratis tend to see Haftar, an ex-general from Gaddafi’s army, as a copy of the autocrat.
Misrata’s troops already fought a war with Haftar in 2014 when the LNA flew air strikes to stop an advance of the city’s force on Tripoli, held then by a government allied to Haftar.
This time Haftar, who seems himself as a bastion against Islamists, has not sent planes to bomb the Misrata’s air, port and steel plant, which some diplomats take as sign he wants to make a deal with the Misratis in the end.
While the city is known for its armed groups and Islamists, it also home to businessmen, many of whom did well under the old regime — it has Libya’s biggest port, and steel and dairy firms serving the whole country.
Misrata is feeling the economic pinch: For example, foreign banks have become reluctant to open letters of credit for the steel plant, said its chairman Mohamed al-Faqih.
But this has not shaken his resolve. “God willing we will finish the barbarian attack of the criminal Haftar,” he said.
Other community leaders rule out peace talks with Haftar.
“With Haftar a deal is not possible anymore. Even if we lost 100,000 we would keep fighting,” said Mohamed Raed, a lawmaker and chairman of the al-Nasseem dairy firm — Tripoli fighters are supplied with his ice cream.
“We have more than 30,000 fighters in Misrata but so far we have sent only 6,000,” he said.
For their part, diplomats estimate Tripoli’s defenders at 3,000, similar to the dispatched LNA force. Only 1,000 are at the frontline, the rest are in forward bases, a diplomat said.
Both sides have rejected a ceasefire. Misrata officials say their forces will try take Tarhouna, a town southeast of Tripoli controlled by LNA. Haftar has been recruiting there.
“If Tarhouna is gone then Haftar lost the war,” said Raed.
The LNA itself has strengthened positions near the central city of Sirte, controlled by Misrata.
“Every day 150 to 200 women prepare meals to support our revolutionaries (fighters), meals, cakes,” said Halima Traim, who heads a Misrata charity. “We do this for our nation.”
(The story amends to “Libyan” from “Libya” in paragraph 1.)
Editing by William Maclean