Libyan commander urges troops to press fight to take Tripoli

Libyans hold a demonstration at Martyrs' Square against military operations by forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter in Tripoli, Libya, Friday, May 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Hazem Ahmed)
Libyans hold a demonstration at Martyrs' Square against military operations by forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter in Tripoli, Libya, Friday, May 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Hazem Ahmed)

CAIRO — A Libyan army commander whose forces are advancing on Tripoli is rallying his fighters on in defiance of U.N. calls for a weeklong cease-fire to coincide with the start of the fasting month of Ramadan on Monday.

The battle for the Libyan capital, which erupted in early April, has threatened to ignite a civil war on the scale of the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The fighting has killed at least 432 people so far, including combatants and civilians, according to the U.N. health agency.

The push was launched by the self-styled Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Hifter and based in the country's east, which is seeking to take over the city and defeat militias loosely allied to a U.N.-supported government in Tripoli.

The World Health Organization said Monday that along with the 432 killed, 2,069 people have been wounded. The fighting has also displaced more than 50,000 people, WHO said.

The U.N. has repeatedly called for an end to the fighting. On Sunday, the U.N. mission said a "one-week humanitarian truce" would begin at 4 a.m. Monday and called on all parties to cease military operations, including reconnaissance and mobilization.

The truce would come as many Muslims across the world begin observing the fasting month of Ramadan.

But in released comments, Hifter said Ramadan had not been a reason to halt previous battles when he took the eastern cities of Benghazi and Derna.

"I salute you in these glorious days and urge you, with your strength and determination, to teach the enemy a greater and bigger lesson than the previous ones ... till we uproot them from our beloved land," Hifter said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat both strongly appealed again for a cease-fire after meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Guterres noted the initiative for a Ramadan truce, but said what is really needed is a halt to hostilities and foreign interference to allow Libyans to come together "and discuss seriously, politically" a way toward national reconciliation, elections and peace.

Mahamat said the AU was hoping for a reconciliation conference that was canceled after Hifter's offensive, and its "priority today is a cessation of hostilities."

Over the past days, the fighting has been centered along the southern parts of the capital, where Hifter's forcers attempted to breach the militia defenses.

Hifter previously challenged the U.N. when he ordered his troops to march on Tripoli even as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was visiting the North African country to push for a U.N.-brokered conference. That gathering, which was aimed at bridging the gap among Libya's factions and drawing a roadmap for new elections, eventually fell apart and was postponed amid the violence.

Since Gahdafi's ouster, Libya has been governed by rival authorities in the east and in Tripoli, in the west, each backed by various militias and armed groups fighting over resources and territory.

Hifter, who in recent years has been battling Islamic extremists and other militias across eastern Libya, says he is determined to restore stability to the North African country.

But his opponents view him as an aspiring autocrat and fear a return to a one-man rule in Libya.

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Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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