TRIPOLI — Fighting raged around Tripoli and an air strike closed its only functioning airport Monday, as Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar defied international calls to halt his advance on the capital.
Thousands were also reported by the United Nations to be fleeing the capital city in the face of Haftar’s surprise assault which has left dozens dead.
French President Emmanuel Macron held a telephone interview with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.
The internationally recognized GNA said Macron had spoken of his “total opposition to the offensive against the capital and the endangering of civilian lives”.
The French presidency confirmed the call took place, without releasing details of the discussion.
The EU’s foreign policy chief added her voice to those urging Haftar to stop his offensive, after calls for restraint by the UN Security Council and the United States.
“I make a very strong appeal to Libyan leaders and in particular to Haftar to stop all military activities... and to return to the negotiation table”, Federica Mogherini said after talks with EU foreign ministers.
Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army claimed Monday’s air strike against Mitiga airport, east of the capital.
LNA spokesman Ahmad al-Mesmari said the strike targeted a MiG-23 military plane and a helicopter.
A security source at the airport said the strike hit a runway without causing casualties.
The UN’s envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, denounced the strike.
“This attack constitutes a serious violation of international humanitarian law which prohibits attacks against civilian infrastructure,” Salame said.
A spokesman for national carrier Libyan Airlines said the civil aviation authority decided “to suspend aerial traffic until further notice”.
An airport source, who did not want to be named, confirmed the suspension.
The oil-rich northern African country has been rocked by violent power struggles between an array of armed groups since the NATO-backed overthrow of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
Haftar, a former Kadhafi military chief, has emerged as a major player.
His LNA backs an administration in the country’s east in opposition to the UN-backed GNA.
Having seized control of much of eastern Libya — and buoyed by a series of victories in the desert south — Haftar turned his sights on Tripoli, vowing to “cleanse” it of “terrorists and mercenaries”.
After a pause overnight, fighting resumed Monday morning around the capital’s destroyed main airport, some 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Tripoli, and the rural area of Wadi Rabi further east.
World powers have expressed alarm at the violence, saying it threatens to further destabilise Libya and derail UN-led efforts to find a political solution to the country’s woes.
The US has appealed for an “immediate halt” to combat operations and the UN Security Council has called on Haftar’s forces to stop their advance.
On Sunday Russia blocked proposals for the council to adopt a formal statement, instead insisting that all Libyan forces be urged to stop fighting, diplomats said.
Moscow is a key supporter of Haftar, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
But the Kremlin on Monday urged “all sides to reject actions that could provoke bloodshed in battle and the deaths of civilians”.
Fierce clashes Sunday near Tripoli saw Haftar’s fighters and other powerful western Libyan armed groups exchanging fire including air strikes.
Forces backing the Tripoli-based GNA on Sunday announced a counteroffensive dubbed “Volcano of Anger”.
Spokesman Colonel Mohamed Gnounou said it was aimed at “purging all Libyan cities of aggressor and illegitimate forces”, in reference to Haftar’s fighters.
Unity government health minister A’hmid Omar told Libya’s Al-Ahrar television station late Sunday that around 50 people had been wounded along with those killed.