CAIRO (AP) — Libya’s U.N.-backed government reclaimed a strategic town near Tripoli from opposition forces that have been fighting for the past three months to capture the country’s capital, with a government spokesman saying Thursday its fighters were in full control of the town.
The capture of Gharyan, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Tripoli, is significant because it had served as a key supply route for the forces of commander Khalifa Hifter, head of the self-styled Libyan National Army.
The LNA, based in eastern Libya and loyal to a rival government, launched an offensive on Tripoli in April, setting off fierce fighting that has threatened to plunge the country into another bout of violence on the scale of the 2011 conflict that ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and led to his death.
“All of Gharyan is under our control,” Col. Mohamed Gnono told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Tripoli. “The operation was carried out with (few) losses and in less than 24 hours.”
Gnono said an unspecified number of locals from the town’s population had collaborated with the government forces to ensure “the success of the operation.” He confirmed earlier reports that government forces had launched eight airstrikes targeting a key LNA operations room as well as armored vehicles believed to belong to the United Arab Emirates.
A statement from government forces late Wednesday first announced the fall of Gharyan, saying they would pursue their campaign to push back Hifter “until the aggressors are purged from all areas.”
Hifter’s offensive on Tripoli has been widely criticized by the U.N. and aid agencies. Hundreds have been killed in the violence, mainly combatants but also civilians, and thousands have been displaced. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization said the toll of the fighting around Tripoli had reached 739 killed and 4,407 wounded.
Hifter, backed by key regional players including Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, claims the push on Tripoli seeks to free the city of radical militias.
For its part, the U.N.-backed government has accused Hifter of trying to establish a one-man military dictatorship.
Later on Thursday, The Libyan National Army posted a statement on Facebook denying their rivals were in full control of Gharyan and claiming there was still some fighting underway. “We faced treason from certain people” in the town, Gen. Al-Mabrouk al-Ghazawy was quoted as saying about the LNA’s losses.
Virginie Collombier, a political science professor with the European University Institute, said the fall of Gharyan is “a major blow” to Hifter’s forces, which have ceased to make any military advances for almost six weeks.
“After almost three months, not only has Hifter not managed to get control of Tripoli but he is also losing now the very first city that he had captured,” she told the AP.
Collumbier went on to explain that the attack on Gharyan was an “unexpected military move” by government forces, which had seized the opportunity amid the LNA’s preoccupation with ongoing fight around Tripoli international airport. “The LNA had to reinforce its troops around the airport and this is why they weakened their positions in Gharyan,” she said.
Libya sank into chaos after Gadhafi’s ouster and is now divided between two administrations — the weak U.N.-backed government in Tripoli and a rival, east-based government that has Hifter’s forces on its side — and an array of militias affiliated with either side and fighting over territory.
Collombier said it has become clear that forces loyal to the Tripoli government are no longer focusing on defending the capital but are adopting more offensive strategies to reclaim territories that their rivals have captured since the onset of the fighting.
Hifter’s campaign against Islamic militants across Libya in recent years won him growing international support from world leaders who say they are concerned the North African country has turned into a haven for armed groups, and a major conduit for migrants bound for Europe.