June 23, 2020 / 1:28 PM / 17 days ago

Libyan and foreign forces mobilise at Sirte, Arab ministers urge calm

CAIRO/TUNIS (Reuters) - Arab foreign ministers said on Tuesday they wanted to head off a new battle in Libya, where the warring sides are mobilising near the main oil region as their foreign backers threaten an escalation.

“Libya is passing through a dangerous turn in the course of its conflict,” Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement.

Egypt has said its army may directly intervene in Libya and France has said it will not tolerate Turkish involvement there.

Libya’s frontlines have shifted rapidly as Ankara’s backing helped the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) to drive the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) from Tripoli and the northwest.

The LNA, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt, has fallen back as far as Sirte, on the central Mediterranean coastline, where airstrikes stopped the GNA advance.

Both sides are now preparing to battle for Sirte. An LNA source said its commander, Khalifa Haftar, was reinforcing there.

A senior Turkish official, Yasin Aktay, said on Monday the GNA was making preparations to recapture it and that Egypt’s leadership lacked “the power or guts” to attempt to stop this.

The fighting has come at a cost for civilians, who have faced booby-trapped homes, looting and arson as the action moves eastwards.

MAJOR BLOW

The LNA retreat to Sirte last month was a blow to Haftar, whose goal of uniting Libya by force after years of chaos and division hinged on the offensive he launched in April 2019 to capture Tripoli.

Any further advance by the GNA would give it the chance to take back control over Libya’s “oil crescent”, the region where most of the OPEC member’s energy is produced and exported.

Its military success in recent weeks has depended partly on the support of Turkish drones, which targeted LNA supply lines and troop formations.

Last month the United States said Russia had flown warplanes to an LNA base and last week it said they were now operating in the vicinity of Sirte.

However, diplomats say a new battle for the town - the western gateway to Libya’s main oil terminals - could still be avoided, particularly if Turkey and Russia can hash out an agreement.

Russia said on Tuesday it wanted a ceasefire in Libya and denied a United Nations report last month that said it had up to 1,200 mercenaries fighting in the country.

Reporting By Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Angus McDowall in Tunis; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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