The development is a heavy setback for the eastern-based forces under commander Khalifa Hifter, who has been waging a campaign for over a year to take Tripoli from an array of militias in the west, loosely linked to the administration in the capital.
Col. Mohamed Gnounou, a spokesman for the Tripoli-allied forces, said they retook the al-Waitya airbase in the city’s southwestern desert reaches. He said they captured a Pantsir surface-to-air missile system located at the base.
Tripoli-based Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord Fayez Sarraj vowed “liberate all cities and regions" in Libya. “Today’s victory is not the end of the battle,” he said in a statement.
Hifter's self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces sought to downplay their loss of the base, saying it was a “tactical withdrawal" and that most of their troops and weapons were safe. The Tripoli-allied forces have been trying for weeks to take the base, stepping up attacks by Turkish-supplied drones. Meanwhile, Hifter’s forces have sustained heavy losses recently — in April, the Tripoli-allied forces seized control of the city of Sabrata and the town of Sorman, west of the Libyan capital.
“The GNA’s advances were enabled by extensive Turkish military support, which the LAAF and its backers are yet to answer to,” said Hamish Kinnear, an analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
The Tripoli-allied forces will likely attempt to press home their advantage by pushing forward toward the western town of Tarhuna, which is an essential link in the LAAF’s supply lines to their positions in Tripoli, he said. The Tripoli forces have repeatedly attacked Tarhuna, a stronghold for Hifter, in recent weeks.
The escalation in the fighting comes despite increased international pressure on both sides to return to negotiating a political settlement and to halt the violence over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Libya has reported at least 65 cases of the virus, including three deaths. The pandemic could post a grave challenge for war-torn Libya, where a decade-long conflict has ravaged key infrastructure and created dire medical shortages.
Hifter's push on Tripoli has mostly stalemated but the turmoil in the oil-rich country has steadily worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervene — despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.
Turkey has sent armored drones, air defenses and more recently Syrian militants with links to extremist groups to prop up the embattled Tripoli government. Russia, meanwhile, has deployed hundreds of mercenaries to boost Hifter’s assault. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt also back Hifter.
The U.S. Embassy in Libya on Monday called on all parties and the international community to support the U.N.-led process, quoting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s statement that “there is no military solution to the crisis in Libya.”
In a phone call with Sarraj on Saturday, Stoltenberg voiced “deep concern” over the recent escalation, stressing that the Berlin conference had “laid out a clear political way forward.”