Libyan army commander Khalifa Haftar on Thursday ordered his forces to march on Tripoli, the capital of the U.N.-backed government, sparking fears of a major showdown with rival militias.
The order to his Libyan National Army posted in an audio recording online came as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the North African country and issued “a very strong appeal ... for all military movements to stop.”
Haftar also put at risk upcoming peace talks between Libyan rivals brokered by the U.N. aimed at drawing a road map for new elections.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency closed-door meeting Friday afternoon at Britain’s request to discuss the unfolding developments.
The 2011 NATO-supported uprising that toppled and later killed longtime dictator Moammar Kadafi led to chaos in Libya. The country has been split between rival governments in the east and west and an array of militias fighting over power and oil fields.
Haftar is allied with the east-based administration at odds with the U.N.-backed government based in Tripoli. Alongside the two rival administrations, mostly Islamic militias wield considerable influence and control large swathes of territory in the vast North African nation.
Haftar described his forces’ move as a “victorious march” to “shake the lands under the feet of the unjust bunch.”
“We are coming Tripoli, we are coming,” he said.
Haftar urged his forces to enter the city peacefully and raise their weapons only “in the face of those who seek injustice and prefer confrontation and fighting.”
He also urged his forces not to open fire on any civilians or those who are unarmed.
“Those who lay down their weapons are safe, and those who raise the white banner are safe,” he said.
Guterres not only urged a halt to military movements but also appealed for “containment, calm” and “military and political and verbal de-escalation — and the recognition that ... there is no military solution for the problems in Libya.”
He said at a news conference in Tripoli shortly after Haftar announced the Tripoli offensive that a resumption of dialogue is essential, emphasizing that “the solution must be political.”
Haftar’s message, which was posted on the Facebook page of the army’s media office, comes a day after his forces edged closer to Tripoli and took over the town of Gharyan, 31 miles from Tripoli, without much fighting.
“I am sipping coffee now in Gharyan,” Haftar’s top aide Abdel-Salam Hassi told the Associated Press over the phone. “God willing, we will enter the rest of the cities without clashes.”
Skirmishes were reported overnight in the mountain district of Al Asaba, near Gharyan, in which two people — a resident and a militiaman — were killed, according to the media office of Haftar’s forces.
The announcement of Haftar’s intention to march on Tripoli comes days before the April 14-16 U.N.-brokered conference aimed at bridging the gap among Libya’s factions, coming up with a plan for new elections and ending the country’s split.
Guterres is scheduled to meet Haftar in Benghazi on Friday and said his message will include that everyone in Libya must recognize the need for a political solution.
“And it is clear for me that we absolutely need to avoid the drama of what would be a major confrontation — namely a major confrontation in Tripoli,” he said.