Hifter to begin 'decisive' battle to capture Libyan capital

CAIRO (AP) — The commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army declared Thursday that his troops will embark on a new "decisive" battle to capture the capital Tripoli.

Khalifa Hifter's forces have been trying to wrestle control of the city from the internationally recognized government for nearly eight months.

Since his troops marched on Tripoli in April, Hifter has only been able to lay siege to the city, failing to claim it from from the U.N.-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. So far, the stalemated fighting has left more than 1,000 people dead, mostly combatants.

"The zero hour has ticked. ... Today we announce the beginning of the decisive battle and the moving forward towards the heart of the capital," Hifter said in a televised speech.

Since April, Hifter and his subordinates have made several similar announcements but the claims failed to result in concrete gains on the ground.

However, Hifter's latest declaration comes amid heightened tension between the two warring parties after Sarraj's government signed a security arrangement and maritime deal with the Turkish government last month. Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan said the agreement gives his country the right to send troops to Libya to fend off Hifter's forces.

Since 2015, Libya has been divided between two governments, one in the east and the other in the west. The LNA-allied government enjoys the backing of Russia, France and key Arab countries, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. However, Sarraj's government remains supported by Italy, Turkey and Qatar.

Earlier on Thursday, Libyan authorities re-opened the capital’s main airport after closing it nearly three months ago amid heavy fighting between rival militias.

Mitiga airport was closed down in September after shelling hit what was Tripoli’s only functional civilian airport. At the time, the U.N. mission in Libya said four projectiles struck the area, with one hitting an airplane carrying pilgrims coming back from Saudi Arabia. The attack was blamed on the LNA.

Two flights operated by different Libyan carriers took off from Mitiga airport early on Thursday. One flew to neighboring Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, and the other to Turkey’s capital, Istanbul, according to a pilot and a passenger.