Spokesman: Western Libyan forces take key town from rivals

April 13, 2020 GMT

CAIRO (AP) — Forces allied with the U.N.-supported government in Libya said on Monday they wrested control of a key town that served as a base for rival forces launching a yearlong offensive on the country’s capital.

The fighting for Tripoli has been raging for nearly a year between military commander Khalifa Hifter’s forces, which are allied with a rival government based in eastern Libya, and an array of militias in the west loosely linked to the U.N.-supported authorities in Tripoli, the capital.

The escalation in the fighting fighting comes despite increased international pressure on both sides to halt the violence over concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus. Libya reported at least 25 cases of the virus and one fatality.

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Col. Mohamed Gnounou, a spokesman for the Tripoli-allied forces, said they captured the city of Sabrata, around 75 kilometers (45.5 miles) west of Tripoli. He said on his forces’ official Facebook page that they also took the town of Sorman, 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of the capital.

There was no immediate comment from Hifter’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Libya meanwhile condemned an airstrike that hit an ambulance near the western city of Misrata, killing a paramedic. It said the attack was the eighth on health facilities this year.

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Sunday said it fears that the coronavirus pandemic would compound the suffering of many Libyan families who are already struggling to meet basic needs amid the conflict.

“Clinics and hospitals are overwhelmed caring for war-wounded and those with chronic illnesses, so their capacity to receive COVID-19 patients is limited,” said Willem de Jonge, the ICRC’s head of operations for Libya.

Hifter forces, which control much of the county, launched the offensive on Tripoli last April. The offensive has led to a military stalemate, killed hundreds of civilians and displaced more than 200,000 people, according the U.N.

The chaos in the oil-rich country has worsened in recent months 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 U.N.-backed Tripoli government.

Russia, meanwhile, has deployed hundreds of mercenaries to boost Hifter’s assault. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt also back Hifter with fighter jets, drones and mine-resistant vehicles.