TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Fighters allied to Libya’s U.N.-backed government posted selfies from a barracks one day last month to mark their progress in a battle for Tripoli.
Later that day, opposition troops belonging to eastern commander Khalifa Haftar did the same from the identical spot to show they had taken it back.
Yarmouk camp, a barracks in southern Tripoli, has switched hands between the two sides at least five times since the beginning of April, according to online videos.
Government forces have held Yarmouk for at least a week now, but the situation is fluid.
Its shifting fate underscores how Haftar’s one month offensive on the capital city has been inconclusive and suggests that fighting could last for many months more.
Regions, tribes and armed groups have been vying for control of Libya, a major oil and gas producer, since the uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The latest battle for Tripoli is the largest mobilization of opposing forces since then, and Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and government troops exchange fire daily.
But the frontline has barely moved. Haftar’s tanks and vehicles are stuck in Tripoli’s southern suburbs. Fighters take videos to document progress before losing ground again and analysts and residents expect a protracted battle.
“This war could drag on for a long time. Both sides remain confident, have men in reserves and friends capable of re-arming them,” said Tarek Megerisi, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
While the Tripoli forces have the backing of the United Nations, Haftar has the support of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which have helped trained his soldiers. Some Western countries are also sympathetic to Haftar. He received military support from France which helped him take over the eastern city of Benghazi in 2017.
More than 60,000 people have been displaced from Tripoli since the offensive started on April 4. The World Health Organisation said 443 people have died and 2,110 have been injured.
Diplomats note that the LNA has not yet engaged in all-out urban warfare as it did in Benghazi from 2014 to 2017, when artillery guns and jets hammered Islamists holed up in buildings, flattening entire districts. The LNA blamed the Islamists for indiscriminate shelling.
The battle for Benghazi and later Derna, another eastern city taken by Haftar, took place largely out of sight of the international community. Few diplomats and foreign reporters traveled east because it was dangerous and visas were scarce.
Such a heavy-handed strategy would be more difficult in Tripoli, where the government has issued visas for dozens of reporters. The U.N. has a large mission still on the ground and some Western embassies have stayed open.
The Tripoli forces have pushed back the LNA in some areas, but Haftar is sending more troops and some residents fear more aggressive tactics are on the way.
“We can hear shelling every day but only God knows what will happen,” said Mohammed Trabulsi, who has a bag shop near the frontline in the Salahudin district. He has very few customers these days.
“I expect the situation to get worse.”
The Tripoli government has accused the LNA of indiscriminate shelling. The LNA denies shelling residential areas.
Haftar, a former Gaddafi general, hoped locals in Tripoli would help him advance. Some initially supported him, but many of them have changed their minds during the fighting.
“I was with Haftar but not any longer,” said 26-year-old Tripoli resident Mohammed Duri. “I don’t like the armed groups we have here but you can’t shell a city and then rule it.”
Instead, Haftar is bolstering his offensive with extra troops and fire power. A convoy including armed vehicles for urban warfare was spotted last week south of Tripoli, a diplomatic source said.
LNA sources say he has other troops left in the east. His elite Saiqa (Lightning) force around 3,500 members but only a few hundred are on the frontline.
Yarmouk’s wide streets are easy for tanks to navigate but its low buildings make it hard to set up a position of command.
Higher residential buildings rise up beyond the last checkpoint of the frontline. They are still occupied and shops are open, although they have few customers.
The Tripoli forces could position their snipers there to slow any attempt by the LNA to advance to the north, as others have done in previous battles in the capital.
While they may be able to defend the north, it would be difficult to push the LNA back towards the east, said analyst Megerisi.
Those defending Tripoli from the LNA say they have plenty of ammunition with fresh supplies from several western towns.
But with little coordination amongst the different groups, some commanders are reluctant to pass on shipments for fear that it will be sold or stored by those whose loyalty might change, sources say.
Some of the armed groups now defending Tripoli fought each other for weeks in September over access to state funds. They have patched over their differences to unite against Haftar, but LNA supporters hope some will change sides if he advances.
Megerisi fears the different groups are becoming embroiled in a war with no winner.
“Win is a big term here, it suggests some element of finality,” he said.
“The real fear for Libya is that the war does drag, and escalate, because the more outside powers invest and the more Libyans die for their cause, the more intractable this war will become.”
Editing by Anna Willard