The worst fighting of Libya’s three-year civil war has erupted, with battles raging for control of Tripoli and key oil ports, raising the temperature on US claims of increasing Russian influence in the country.
In eastern Libya, the army of the national parliament, led by strongman Khalifa Haftar, has recaptured two oil ports, Sidra and Ras Lanuf, from Islamist militias that seized them this month.
Meanwhile Tripoli is shuddering under three days of violence between rival militias battling with tanks and artillery. The fighting has intensified a diplomatic spat between Moscow and Washington over claims by unnamed US and Egyptian officials that Russia has deployed special forces and drones to an airbase in western Egypt near the border with Libya.
Russia and Egypt have denied the claims, but US senator Lindsey Graham called last week for Moscow’s growing Libya footprint to be put on the “radar screen” of Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
While Russia recognises Libya’s elected parliament in the eastern town of Tobruk, the US and most western powers back a rival, unelected government of national accord (GNA) in Tripoli which they hope can unify the country.
In January Moscow invited Haftar for a full dress parade aboard its aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, as it returned from Syria, while Russia’s state-owned oil giant Rosneft has announced plans for major new investments in Libya.
Visiting Moscow this week seeking military aid, the parliament’s president, Agila Saleh, told the RIA Novosti news agency: “We asked the Russian government to help us with training the soldiers in our armed forces and the repair of military equipment.”
Analysts say Russia’s growing involvement in Libya has come as the US is distracted by crises elsewhere in the world. “As in Syria, Russia’s interest [in Libya] is opportunistic,” said Geoff Porter, the director of US-based North Africa Risk Consulting. “Moscow saw an opening that was afforded to it by Washington’s lack of leadership.”
No reliable casualty figures have yet been reported from the violence of recent days in Tripoli, with militias battling each other in western and central districts. Flights were suspended from the city centre airport as stray rockets hit buildings across the city.
“There are explosions everywhere – you can never know when clashes will take place,” one resident, who asked not be be named, emailed from the city. “I’m scared of going out and getting stuck in crossfire.”
The UN envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, tweeted:
I call for immediate ceasefire in #Tripoli. Civilians at grave risk in ongoing clashes 1/2— Martin Kobler (@KoblerSRSG) March 14, 2017
Repeated violence in #Tripoli again demonstrates the need for united, professional security forces to protect the Libyan people 2/2— Martin Kobler (@KoblerSRSG) March 14, 2017
Western powers are struggling to shore up support for the GNA, which was created by a UN-chaired commission and is intended to share power between parliament and groups including a militia coalition, Libya Dawn, that controls Tripoli.
But parliament is divided and has yet to accept the GNA, while it operates its own government in the east complete with a separate currency.
Tobruk’s position has been strengthened because the capture of the oil ports gives it control of the Sirte basin, home to the bulk of Libya’s oil wealth.
Nor has the GNA succeeded in wooing Libya Dawn, whose militias are continuing to battle in Tripoli, some for the GNA, others for yet another would-be administration, the Salvation Government. Wednesday’s fighting saw pro-GNA militias storm the Salvation Government compound at the luxury Rixos hotel.
Last month the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, called for Haftar to be included in the GNA, but some diplomats fear that if that happened, Libya Dawn would reject it, leaving the country still locked in war-torn stalemate.