TUNIS / ANKARA (Reuters) – The internationally recognized Libyan government took over Tripoli’s main airport on Wednesday, virtually pushing back the forces of an eastern commander in the capital before what appeared to be a move towards truce talks.
Videos posted online showed pro-government fighters driving vans among shell-crashed passenger planes and posing for photos next to airport buildings.
This follows a month of gains for the Government of National Accord (GNA) as Turkish drone strikes helped it oust the Libyan National Army (LNA) based east of Khalifa Haftar from a much of its hold in the northwest.
The GNA’s military operations room said its forces captured the airport and pushed the LNA into neighboring Qasr Ben Gashir district. An ANL military source confirmed that its forces had withdrawn and that the GNA was in control of the airport.
Libya has been without central government authority since 2011, with cities controlled by factions fighting for rival governments in place in the east and west since 2014.
Haftar, the most powerful figure in the East, launched an offensive to capture Tripoli in April 2019, but it stalled within months. In recent weeks, the GNA has advanced rapidly, supported by Turkey, against Haftar’s forces, which were supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
With the LNA being driven from almost all of its ground in the capital, the next fighting is expected to focus on areas south and southeast of Tripoli around Gharyan, held by the GNA, and Tarhouna, held by the LNA.
There was a wave of diplomacy on Wednesday as leaders of both sides traveled abroad for meetings hosted by foreign powers involved in the conflict. The United Nations said on Monday that the two sides had agreed to resume ceasefire talks.
Last week, the United States said Russia sent at least 14 fighter jets to an air base held by Eastern forces. Moscow and the LNA have denied, although the LNA said it has refurbished old Libyan planes and is preparing for a new air campaign.
An ANL military source said on Wednesday that warplanes struck near Gharyan, the first recognized use of warplanes by Eastern forces since Washington said Russia had supplied the new MiG 29 jets. and Su-24.
The United Nations has warned that the influx of arms and fighters into Libya in defiance of an arms embargo threatens another major escalation in the fighting.
GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj was due in Ankara on Wednesday evening, Turkish broadcasters reported. His deputy Ahmed Maiteeg and GNA Foreign Minister Mohamed Siyala had arrived in Moscow earlier, local media reported.
“The fact that the legitimate government now has the upper hand should be seen as an opportunity for a political solution,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a television interview.
Meanwhile, Haftar traveled to Egypt to meet with defense officials, a source close to him said.
Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Angus McDowall in Tunis; Editing by Giles Elgood and Peter Graff