Two men stand at the scene of an overnight rocket attack, which no group claimed responsibility for so far, in the Libyan capital Tripoli on April 17, 2019. - A number of rockets struck parts of Tripoli late yesterday after strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive earlier this month to take the Libyan capital, witnesses and AFP journalists said. At least seven powerful explosions rocked the city centre. Shortly afterwards, witnesses said, columns of smoke were seen above the district of Abu Salim in the south of the city, which was hit by a number of rockets. (Photo by Mahmud TURKIA / AFP)MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
Cars destroyed by a rocket attack in Libya © AFP

The UN has warned that international rivalries and support for competing Libyan factions has helped push the oil-rich north African state to the brink of full-blown war.

Since Khalifa Haftar — who is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Russia and France — launched an offensive on Tripoli, the UN has received reports that military equipment, including aircraft and rocket launchers entering the country. 

“There are indications that materiel is pouring in for both sides and that is a serious escalation,” Stephanie Williams, the deputy head of the UN mission to Libya told the Financial Times. “This has to stop because broadening the conflict is going to be catastrophic. This is a city of 3m people.” 

Gen Haftar, who heads the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), launched his offensive on Tripoli, where the UN-backed government of National Accord is based, this month. The assault on the capital came ahead of a UN-organised conference intended to lead to elections and has shattered hopes of a political solution to end years of chaos and violence in the Opec member. 

Western and regional powers — including Gen Haftar’s backers — have called for a “de-escalation” of the fighting. But they have been careful not to single out the LNA. Diplomats and analysts say Gen Haftar’s foreign allies, inadvertently or deliberately, emboldened the veteran soldier to launch his offensive capital with their tacit support.

US President Donald Trump appeared to endorse Mr Haftar, telling him in a phone call last week that he recognised the faction leader’s “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources,” according to a White House statement on Friday. It added that in the call on Monday the two discussed “a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system” but the comments signaled a reversal in US policy. 

The country has been plagued by instability since a popular uprising toppled Muammer Gaddafi in 2011, with rival authorities and myriad militias carving the nation into fiefdoms. 

For two years, Gen Haftar, whose forces control the east, was courted by leaders in Paris, Rome, Moscow, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

UN reports have previously named the UAE and Egypt as being among countries that violated the arms embargo. Russia has bankrolled Gen Haftar by printing Libyan dinars, and there have been reports of Russian mercenaries working with the LNA. 

FILE PHOTO: Libya's eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar attends General Security conference, in Benghazi, Libya, October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori/File Photo
Khalifa Haftar heads the Libyan National Army © Reuters

Ostensibly, the diplomatic courtship of Gen Haftar had three goals: supporting the warlord’s campaign against Islamist extremism, countering human trafficking and securing a political agreement between him and his rivals. 

Yet Gen Haftar made no secret of his ultimate goal — to seize Tripoli and control the country. 

When he advanced into the lawless south in February and took over Libya’s biggest oilfield, Sharara, his allies supported the move. France said Gen Haftar’s operation had “eliminated terrorist targets” and was a way to “durably hinder the activities of human traffickers”. 

Diplomats say the ease of that advance may have convinced Gen Haftar that the time was ripe to move west on Tripoli. 

“My sense is his traditional foreign partners didn’t approve any plan to go into Tripoli and were probably unhappy. But now he’s here, and particularly if he’s faltering, they are likely to want to double-down,” said a western diplomat. 

Regional power struggles are also playing out as the UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s rivals, Turkey and Qatar, back Islamist groups aligned to the Tripoli-based government. Egypt has been using the LNA to secure its borders with eastern Libya, and analysts say Cairo is probably worried that the Tripoli offensive will overstretch Gen Haftar’s forces and triggering further chaos.

The offensive has also thrust differences between France and Italy over Libya policy back to the surface. Rome staunchly backs the Tripoli government and views Gen Haftar as an autocratic, destabilising barrier to peace. 

Disagreements have been exacerbated by strained relations between Mr Macron and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister. Mr Salvini recently said it would be “very serious if France, for economic or commercial reasons, had blocked an EU initiative to bring peace to Libya”. 

A senior French official told the Financial Times that Gen Haftar’s offensive came as a “surprise” to Paris, which urged him to pursue a political, not military, process. 

French officials, including President Emmanuel Macron, have spoken to Gen Haftar., who denied he was seeking a “military solution”. But he also “seemed to be very determined to move forward,” the French official said. 

The LNA’s offensive has stalled on the edge of Tripoli, with neither side willing to back down. On Thursday, the World Health Organization said 205 people had died in this month’s fighting. 

“When you look closely, you see the regional and international players have only been paying lip service to the UN efforts. Many see the status quo as beneficial for them,” said Mohamed Eljarh, chief executive of the Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting, based in the east of the country. “The international community should be part of the solution, but it has been part of the problem.” 

Additional reporting by Miles Johnson in Rome and Henry Foy in Moscow

Get alerts on Libya when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article