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Soldiers loyal to Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar were on Monday amassed about 15 kilometres south of the centre of Tripoli, the capital of what’s left of the failed state of Libya. City residents heard the heavy thudding of artillery overnight. They closed Tripoli’s schools and loaded up on food, water and fuel in case the advance of Gen. Haftar, leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), erupts into a full-blown civil war.

Will it? So far, the casualties have not been catastrophic, with reports of about 51 killed and 80 wounded in recent days as Gen. Haftar’s fighters moved toward Tripoli, taking parts of the southern suburbs and reportedly firing rockets from aircraft into Mitiga airport, Tripoli’s only functioning airport, even as passengers were waiting for their flights. The fighting has displaced 2,800 people, says the UN.

But that could change and the prospect of another civil war has alarmed the West, especially Europe. Human traffickers in the broken country have already funnelled hundreds of thousands of African migrants to Europe, triggering political backlashes in Italy and other countries. Islamic State has used the country as a terrorist recruitment centre; a Libyan member of IS blew himself up after an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, in 2017, killing 22 people.

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The oil-rich country is also an important supplier of energy to the European and world markets. As the Americans use sanctions to clamp down on Iranian oil exports, a civil war that disrupts Libya’s own oil exports could push prices up to uncomfortable levels, a possible nightmare for U.S. President Donald Trump as he approaches an election.

Michel Cousins, editor-in-chief of the Libya Herald digital newspaper (now based in Tunisia), thinks Gen. Haftar will probably soon make a lunge for Tripoli, moving all the way to Martyrs’ Square, the symbolic and commercial heart of the capital. The square was captured by rebel forces in August, 2011, during the revolution that, with the help of NATO bombing – Canadian CF-18 jets flew 10 per cent of the missions – overthrew Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

But other Libya watchers are not convinced the rogue general will risk a new civil war that could plunge Tripoli and potentially great swaths of the rest of the country into a new round of violence and misery. Libya has been lawless since the revolution, which ended with the assassination of Gadhafi in late 2011 in his hometown of Sirte, and Libyans want peace.

Since then, the country has been under the control of dozens of militias of various degrees of criminal and lethal proficiency, the biggest of which is Gen. Haftar’s LNA, based in eastern Libya, where the port cities of Benghazi and Tobruk are his power bases. The western government, in and around Tripoli, is called the Government of National Accord (GNA) and is recognized by the United Nations. But it lacks its own army, relying instead on the loyalty of some local militias or ones that might be cozened into protecting the capital now that Gen. Haftar is a clear and present danger.

One Western diplomat assigned to Libya, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said determining who – the GNA or Gen. Haftar – buys the loyalty of which militias will determine whether Gen. Haftar is stopped at the gates of Tripoli or will fight his way to Martyrs’ Square, in which case Libya faces another civil war. “Alliances are completely opportunistic and the population is divided,” he said. “People want to come out on the winning side.”

Gen. Haftar’s advance into western Libya has, so far, met with little resistance. In recent months, he took southern Libya, a free-for-all zone stuffed with human traffickers and smugglers, with little effort and no resistance from Europe. His move on Tripoli, however, has encountered fighting, which may turn ugly for him.

Crucially, some of the militias from Misrata, the coastal city about 190 km east of Tripoli, have moved to Tripoli to protect the city. They are well-armed. “To take Tripoli will not be easy,” Mr. Cousins said. “It depends what the Misrata militias will do. They may do a deal with Haftar, but if they don’t, these are people who will fight.”

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The American reaction is another wild card. Among the Western countries to condemn Gen. Haftar for his assault on Tripoli, it was the Americans who issued the strongest warning. “We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “This unilateral military campaign against Tripoli is endangering civilians and undermining prospects for a better future for all Libyans. There is no military solution to the Libya conflict.”

The United States and the European Union support the UN-sponsored peace effort, which had called for a conference on national unity later this month that would lead to a new constitution and legislative and presidential elections. But Gen. Haftar obviously has his own view on how unity should be accomplished and it may not be through the ballot box. As if to prove he had no use for the UN plan (even though, at times, he had supported it), his offensive on Tripoli coincided with UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s visit to Libya to prepare for the conference. That event now seems doomed.

The United States withdrew some of its soldiers from Libyan soil over the weekend as the security situation deteriorated. While Mr. Pompeo did not say anything to the effect that “all options are open” if Gen. Haftar does not retreat, American military intervention of some sort cannot be ruled out if Tripoli turns into a battle zone that threatens civilian lives.

Gen. Haftar, who is 75 and reportedly not in good health, used to be a Gadhafi loyalist but turned on the dictator and found exile in the United States for 20 years, where he became an American citizen.

His return to Libya during the revolution has met with considerable success. He casts himself as the enemy of Islamic terrorists, earning him the support of Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the United Arab Emirates and a lot of Libyans, who consider him a patriot.

UN warns of military escalation in Libya

Mediterranean Sea

Tripoli

TUNISIA

Misrata

Tobruk

Benghazi

Sirte

Ajdabiya

LNA

advance

EGYPT

ALGERIA

Sabha

Oil and gas fields

and pipelines

LIBYA

Ghat

Qatrun

SAHARA

DESERT

0

300

KM

CHAD

NIGER

Approximate areas of control (as of April 3, 2019)

Tobruk-based government backed by Gen. Khalifa

Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA)

UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)

Other factions

graphic news, Sources: Associated Press;

South Front

UN warns of military escalation in Libya

Mediterranean Sea

Tripoli

TUNISIA

Misrata

Tobruk

Benghazi

Sirte

Ajdabiya

LNA

advance

ALGERIA

EGYPT

Sabha

Oil and gas fields

and pipelines

LIBYA

Ghat

Qatrun

SAHARA

DESERT

0

300

KM

CHAD

NIGER

Approximate areas of control (as of April 3, 2019)

Tobruk-based government backed by Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s

Libyan National Army (LNA)

UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)

Other factions

graphic news, Sources: Associated Press; South Front

UN warns of military escalation in Libya

Mediterranean Sea

Tripoli

TUNISIA

Misrata

Tobruk

Benghazi

Sirte

Ajdabiya

LNA

advance

ALGERIA

Sabha

EGYPT

Oil and gas fields

and pipelines

LIBYA

Ghat

Qatrun

SAHARA

DESERT

0

300

KM

CHAD

NIGER

Approximate areas of control (as of April 3, 2019)

Tobruk-based government backed by Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s

Libyan National Army (LNA)

UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)

Other factions

graphic news, Sources: Associated Press; South Front

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