TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya’s internationally recognised government regained control of Tripoli on Thursday, driving eastern forces out of the capital after a 14-month battle in which foreign powers poured in arms and fighters.
In the recaptured southern suburbs, bodies still lay on the ground and fighters brandished weapons abandoned by the eastern forces, a Reuters visual journalist said.
In the city centre, civilians were glad the fighting was over. “It’s an incredible feeling. People can now return home and there is no more shelling,” said a 37-year-old man from the Ain Zara district, one of the areas taken, who asked not to use his name.
A military source with the eastern forces said they were pulling back from all of Tripoli’s suburbs. Government forces said they now held everything within the city boundary.
It represents a stinging reversal for eastern commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), which launched an offensive on Tripoli last year pledging to unite Libya after years of chaos.
Continued Russian, Egyptian and United Arab Emirates support for the LNA means the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is recognised by the United Nations and backed by Turkey, has little hope of carrying the war into eastern Libya for now.
But, with eastern forces withdrawing towards their northwestern stronghold of Tarhouna, the lines are being drawn for battles to come although both sides have agreed to resume U.N.-brokered ceasefire talks.
The arrival of heavier weapons, which the United States says include a fleet of Russian warplanes, means fighting could become far deadlier.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, said in a call with journalists on Thursday the situation had escalated dangerously, but added that Haftar’s defeat in Tripoli created an opportunity to stop fighting.
“Participants have a choice to watch it escalate into a full-blown regional war or to finally de-escalate,” he said.
The main outside powers engaged in the conflict have welcomed the decision to resume ceasefire talks and publicly say they support a political resolution, but it is unclear if they could agree on a settlement.
It leaves Libya still partitioned between rival administrations in Tripoli and Benghazi in the east.
After GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj met Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, the Turkish president said Ankara would increase its support to Tripoli.
A senior Turkish official said the GNA advances were critical before any potential peace talks.
“Everyone wants to sit at the table without losing territory, but the territory you hold strengthens your positions at the table,” the official said.
Norland said the U.N. had already restarted the process of talks and was engaging each side separately at first.
Both sides in Libya are made up of unstable coalitions of sometimes rival factions. It is unclear how the failure of the Tripoli offensive could affect the position of Haftar, who went to Cairo on Wednesday for meetings with Egypt’s deputy defence minister.
Analysts say there are few other candidates capable of holding together the different forces in the LNA and a statement by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo reflected Egypt’s established position of blaming Turkey for the bloodshed.
The LNA’s sudden reversals follow Turkey’s direct intervention with drones that have targeted LNA supply lines and defences that neutralised much eastern air power.
Fighting in the southern suburbs has for months involved intense bombardment of civilian areas held by the GNA, including rocket attacks on hospitals.
A GNA military spokesman said the recent advances meant Tripoli would now be out of range of LNA shelling.
But as the GNA moved southwards through the city over the past week, it said its fighters encountered many explosive booby traps hidden in houses. Civilians in LNA-held Tarhouna now face the prospect of coming under more intense bombardment.
Reporting by Reuters Libya Newsroom, Ayman al-Sahili in Tripoli and Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; additional reporting by Mahmoud Mourad in Cairo; writing by Angus McDowall in Tunis; editing by Timothy Heritage and Alexandra Hudson