Hifter calls on youth to help with battle for Tripoli

CAIRO (AP) — The commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army has called on young people in Tripoli to join its offensive to capture the capital from the U.N.- backed government based there amid warnings from the international community of military escalation and targeting of civilians.

The LNA, led by commander Khalifa Hifter, reached out via a post published on one of its official Facebook pages Friday, calling for young people in the city to work with its marching forces to eliminate all militias allied with the Tripoli-based government.

"The decisive hour is not far," Brig. Gen. Khaled al-Mahjoub, head of the LNA mobilization department told The Associated Press. "We are only five kilometers away from the capital, our forces are advancing, and they are retracting."

Libya slid into chaos after the 2011 uprising that toppled Moammar Gadhafi and is now split between rival authorities in the east and west, each backed by various militias. Hifter's LNA, which is allied with the eastern government, launched an offensive against Tripoli in April but has made little progress amid stiff resistance by militias loosely allied with the government there. The fighting has killed more than 1,000 people, mostly combatants, according to the World Health Organization.

The Tripoli-based government issued a statement early Saturday saying it had gathered information suggesting that Hifter's forces were planning a military escalation in the form of airstrikes against key sites in the capital, including Mitiga airport, Tripoli's only functioning airport.

The government called upon the international community to "halt this aggression" and to stop "the bloodshed of the Libyan people."

A day earlier, the west-based parliament released a statement saying that it had gathered other intelligence information of possible airstrikes by Hifter's allies, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France. The parliament did not reveal details and there was no immediate response from the three nations.

"We are getting used to their lies," said Al-Mahjoub in reference to the U.N.-backed Government of National accord. "But we will enter the capital. There is no question about that."

Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, cast doubt over the impact of any LNA airstrikes.

If Hifter"is about to launch a more intensified aerial operation, how (is he) going to use these aerial strikes to control Tripoli if he does not have forces on the ground?" said Gazzini, an expert on Libya's conflict who recently returned to Italy from Tripoli.

"Based on observations in and around Tripoli and other surrounding cities until yesterday, there was no evidence of major movement of LNA affiliated forces," she said.

The U.N. Support Mission in Libya said Saturday it was "doing its utmost with all local and foreign actors to avoid military escalation and to ensure protection of civilians from any targeting."