TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognised government took the last stronghold of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar near Tripoli on Friday and advanced further south, capping the sudden collapse of his 14-month offensive on the capital.
Military sources in Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) said their forces had withdrawn from the town of Tarhouna towards Sirte, far to the east, and al-Jufra airbase in central Libya.
The advance extends the control of the Government of National Accord (GNA) across most of northwest Libya, reversing many of Haftar’s gains from last year when he raced towards Tripoli.
The GNA gains could entrench the de facto partition of Libya into zones controlled by rival eastern and western governments whose foreign backers compete for regional sway.
The GNA is backed by Turkey, while Haftar, whose LNA still controls the east and oil fields in the south, is supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said on television that “friendly countries” had urged an end to the fighting. But he vowed the fight would continue and called it a holy war against Turkey.
The United Nations has started holding talks with both sides for a ceasefire deal in recent days, though previous truces have not stuck.
“What is happening now is the beginning of the division of Libya,” Saeed Mugheeb, a pro-Haftar lawmaker, said in a statement that echoed comments from others in the east.
The United Nations says weapons and fighters have flooded into the country in defiance of an arms embargo, risking a deadlier escalation.
Turkish military support for the GNA was key to its recent successes. Ankara regards Libya as crucial to defending its interests in the eastern Mediterranean.
However, the LNA still retains its foreign support. Washington said last week Moscow had sent warplanes to LNA-held Jufra, though Russia and the LNA denied this.
Located in the hills southeast of Tripoli, Tarhouna had functioned as a forward base for Haftar’s assault on the capital. Its swift fall suggests his foreign supporters were less willing to sustain his offensive once Turkey intervened.
It has raised questions over Haftar’s predominant position in eastern Libya though few other figures there appear capable of holding together the coalition of forces he has assembled into the LNA.
Some Tarhouna residents fled east, and the Kani family, which had controlled it since 2014 also withdrew, LNA military sources said.
Footage inside Tarhouna showed GNA forces there cheering and firing into the air. The GNA later said it had discovered more than 100 bodies in a morgue in the town and was investigating.
Later on Friday, the GNA said it had entered Bani Walid, a small town south of Tarhouna and site of an airfield. Two residents confirmed the GNA had entered it without opposition.
“There could be a solution at the table, but Haftar’s forces are losing ground in every sense,” said a Turkish official.
Reporting by Reuters Libya Newsroom; additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara; writing by Angus McDowall in Tunis and Aidan Lewis in Cairo; Editing by Jason Neely and Alistair Bell