Libya’s UN-supported government launched a counterattack on Sunday against a strategic military base used by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar to pound the capital Tripoli with rocket fire.
The response came after a missile barrage damaged Tripoli’s main airport and set fuel tanks and several aircraft ablaze, with at least six civilians killed in surrounding residential areas in the attacks on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Turkey – the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) main ally defending Tripoli against Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) – threatened to step up its attacks against the eastern-based LNA, which has attempted to seize the capital for more than a year.
“The forces of war criminal [Haftar] fired more than a hundred rockets and missiles at residential areas in the centre of the capital,” the GNA said in a statement on Facebook.
The airport was badly damaged and came under renewed rocket fire on Sunday morning, it said.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Tripoli, said the GNA launched the counter-offensive in an effort to take a key LNA base using advanced weaponry to strike the city centre.
“The government’s military commanders say they are trying to recapture a military camp in southern Tripoli, which has been under the control of Haftar’s forces for the past few months. Haftar’s troops have been using that camp to fire rockets into residential areas and the airport,” said Abdelwahed.
“Military sources say it is also important because it is run and protected by Russian military experts from the Wagner Group, who have been fighting with Haftar’s forces.”
More than a dozen people have been killed over the past two days in missile attacks, the Tripoli-based government said.
‘Responsible for the suffering’
Turkey said on Sunday that it would deem the Haftar’s forces “legitimate targets” if their attacks on its interests and diplomatic missions in Libya persisted.
On Thursday, Turkey and Italy said the area around their embassies in Tripoli had been shelled.
Turkey backs Libya’s internationally recognised GNA. It has signed a military cooperation deal with the GNA and deployed military trainers and equipment, including armed drones that have helped repel Haftar’s offensive.
Ankara views Haftar’s forces, which are backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, as “putschists”.
“If our missions and our interests in Libya are targeted, we will deem Haftar’s forces legitimate targets,” the foreign ministry said in a statement, in which it also slammed the United Nations for not taking action over the LNA’s attacks.
“It is unacceptable for the United Nations to remain silent against this carnage any longer,” it said. “Countries providing military, financial and political aid to Haftar are responsible for the suffering that the people of Libya are enduring and the chaos and instability the country is being dragged into.”
It also said attacks on Tripoli’s Mitiga airport early on Saturday, part of an intensified barrage of artillery fire on the capital, were war crimes.
“The attacks on diplomatic missions including our Tripoli embassy, Mitiga airport, civilian planes preparing to take off and other civilian infrastructure, and those which kill civilians or injure them, constitute a war crime,” the statement added.
Haftar’s LNA has been fighting for more than a year to capture Tripoli from the GNA, frequently shelling the capital. The United Nations said four-fifths of the 130 civilian casualties recorded in the Libyan conflict in the first quarter of 2020 were caused by LNA ground fighting.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that the LNA was in a “period of regression” after NATO member Turkey threw its support behind the GNA.
“Even the efforts of countries that provide him [Haftar] with unlimited financial support and weapons will not be able to save him,” Erdogan said.
Pro-GNA forces have retaken some territory from the LNA around Tripoli during an escalation of fighting in recent weeks with the help of Turkish-supplied drones.
The LNA says Turkey has established a military drone base at the Mitiga airport, but the GNA denies this.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) called the bombardment “an all too familiar but frightening spectacle”.
“These horrifying attacks occur on a regular basis in close proximity to civilian neighbourhoods,” UNSMIL said on Twitter.
It called the shelling “one in a series of indiscriminate attacks, most of which are attributable to pro-LNA forces, killing more than 15 and injuring 50 civilians since 1 May”.
Since Wednesday, 17 civilians and two police officers have been killed and more than 66 other civilians wounded in rocket fire targeting several areas of the capital, according to the GNA.
UNSMIL slammed the attacks for hitting civilians and civilian infrastructure, and called for “those responsible for crimes under international law to be brought to justice”.
But the GNA said international condemnation was not enough.
“We no longer pay any attention to the timid condemnations of the international community … The senseless acts are proof of his weakness and desperation after the successive defeats of his militias and mercenaries,” it added.
Haftar’s forces have suffered several setbacks in recent weeks, with GNA fighters pushing them from two key coastal cities west of Tripoli in April.
GNA troops now surround the LNA’s main rear base at Tarhouna, 80km (50 miles) southeast of the capital.