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30.04.2019 Libya

Libya fighters press on in battle for Tripoli

Simon Valmary
Africa Men loyal to the government of National Accord (GNA) have been trying to take ground from forces of commander Khalifa Haftar, who launched an offensive on Tripoli on April 4.  By Fadel SENNA (AFP)
APR 30, 2019 LIBYA
Men loyal to the government of National Accord (GNA) have been trying to take ground from forces of commander Khalifa Haftar, who launched an offensive on Tripoli on April 4. By Fadel SENNA (AFP)

Plumes of smoke rise from the plain south of Libya's capital as troops loyal to the UN-recognised government battle to fend off an assault on Tripoli.

On the roof of an abandoned clinic, a fighter surveyed the dry landscape dotted with palm trees some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the capital.

"Over there's the airport," he said, barefoot and dressed in shorts and a black t-shirt.

Tripoli's international airport was heavily damaged in 2014 clashes and has since been out of use, but nonetheless remains a strategic site in the battle for control of the capital.

"And there, is Espiaa" village, he added, after putting down a rocket-launcher on the rooftop strewn with bullet cartridges.

Men loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) have been trying to take ground from forces of commander Khalifa Haftar, who launched an offensive on Tripoli on April 4.

A coalition of Tripoli militias and armed groups from western towns have since April 20 been slowly repelling Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army.

Around Espiaa village, the air echoed with the sound of rocket fire and the incessant barrage of gunfire.  By Fadel SENNA (AFP) Around Espiaa village, the air echoed with the sound of rocket fire and the incessant barrage of gunfire. By Fadel SENNA (AFP)

Around Espiaa, which they are fighting to control, the air echoed with the sound of rocket fire and the incessant barrage of gunfire.

Plumes of white and black smoke rose across the horizon, marking out where strikes had set the dry landscape ablaze.

'Foreign planes'

"There!" shouted one of the fighters, as the engine of a plane is heard overhead and the men momentarily freeze.

"During the day, there are Libyan planes. At night, there are foreign planes, they're more advanced, more precise," he said.

The GNA accuses foreign powers -- the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt among others -- of providing Haftar with military support.

Pro-GNA fighters use armoured vehicles, pick-up trucks and civilian cars to transport men and weapons to the front.  By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP) Pro-GNA fighters use armoured vehicles, pick-up trucks and civilian cars to transport men and weapons to the front. By Mahmud TURKIA (AFP)

At least 345 people have been killed and 1,652 wounded in the Tripoli offensive so far, according to the World Health Organization.

"But the planes can't stop the fighting on the ground. And it's fighting on the ground that can stop a war," said Abdulhamid, one of the leaders of Battalion 166.

The armed group from Misrata, east of Tripoli, claims to have 700 fighters and took part in the battle that ousted the Islamic State group from the city of Sirte in 2016.

The are now trying to prevent Haftar from "establishing a new military dictatorship", according to Abdulhamid.

Ahmed, dressed in combat fatigues and a t-shirt branded Louis Vuitton, said even though their group was from Misrata "we also have the support of the real revolutionaries of all the towns" who fought against dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

One young fighter said he comes from Haftar's eastern stronghold of Benghazi and described his family as being "on the other side" of the frontline.

Other men backing the GNA come from the desert regions of southern Libya.

They use armoured vehicles, pick-up trucks and civilian cars -- with guns poking out of their windows -- to transport men and weapons to the front.

Close to enemy lines, pick-ups with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back advanced in reverse firing towards Haftar's forces -- until suddenly the pro-GNA fighters were forced into a hasty retreat.

The pro-GNA fighters were forced into a hasty retreat in the face of tank fire.  By Fadel SENNA (AFP) The pro-GNA fighters were forced into a hasty retreat in the face of tank fire. By Fadel SENNA (AFP)

Wearing trainers or flip-flops, they searched for shelter along the road as tank fire rained down.

The panic passed after the tank fell quiet, but some fighters struggled to hold back tears as they realised one of their number had been killed. At least one more would be injured by rocket fire during the day.

But at the afternoon's close, one of the men announced they had finally advanced.

"We control the centre of Espiaa" he said, after days of fighting.

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