Soldiers led by General Khalifa Haftar are advancing on Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and have carried out an airstrike in fighting that has killed 21 and left 27 people wounded. The UN backed government has announced a counter offensive, which it has dubbed a ‘Volcano of Rage’.

Forces under General Haftar, who brands himself as a tough anti-Islamist, have advanced on Tripoli from the east, in what Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj from the UN backed government in the capital has called an attempted coup.

General Haftar’s forces from the Libyan National Army (LNA) have also been attacking government forces in Tripoli in a multi-pronged attack from the south and west since Thursday. But forces from the UN backed Government of National Accord (GLA) managed to slow the advance on Sunday and have launched airstrikes of their own against the LNA in what they called the ‘Volcano of Rage’.

Calls by the UN for a two-hour ceasefire to evacuate the wounded and civilians caught in the fighting were not heeded. As international powers and businesses began getting all their personnel and staff out of Libya.

The US said it had temporarily relocated a contingent of US forces due to the unrest, the UN is pulling out all non-essential staff and the Italian oil and gas multinational Eni, has evacuated all its Italian personnel.    

Residents of Tripoli have reportedly been stockpiling food and fuel but have stayed put in their homes for now for fear of looting if they leave.

General Haftar May Not Change Course Easily  

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for an immediate end to the fighting, but many observers fear a long operation with the rouge general also poised to take the eastern city of Benghazi from Islamist fighters.

75-year-old General Haftar has the financial and military support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates who see him as a bulwark against hard-line Islamists who have gained a foothold in Libya.

General Haftar is part of the Libyan old guard and helped Colonel Gaddafi seize power in 1969, before falling out with him and living in exile in the US. He returned to Libya in 2011, when Gaddafi was overthrown with the help of Western forces and in the chaos and unrest, which have plagued Libya since then, he has become a de-facto rebel commander.

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj spoke to the nation in a TV broadcast on Saturday vowing to defend the capital Tripoli at all costs, but diplomats are worried and believe that General Haftar will not back down unless he is defeated militarily.

Ongoing talks to try and find a political settlement to the mess in Libya have broken down, although UN envoy Ghassan Salame insisted that talks would go ahead.

Western nations now have few cards left to play and find themselves little more than observers to the power struggle and in a position where they will have to start from scratch in Libya. 

Edward Cowley