Fighting in Tripoli intensified drastically on Wednesday as rival armies brought tanks and multiple rocket-launch systems to bear in the deadly struggle for control of the Libyan capital.
The escalation came as Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord, issued an address to the nation urging Libyans to defend the capital city from renegade general Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army.
In an address distributed on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Serraj accused Gen Haftar of sabotaging months of painstaking peace negotiations and said he would resist the general’s “coup d’etat” with “firmness and strength”.
“We have extended our hand of peace, yet forces of Haftar have declared war on our cities and capital,” Mr Serraj said. “Accordingly we have issued our instructions and announced the state of general mobilisation for all Libyan armed forces and security services.”
In an apparent swipe at Gen Haftar’s multiple foreign backers, he added: "A final word for the countries that support the conflict between Libyans: fear Allah, stop interfering in our affairs and lift your hands off my country."
Gen Haftar, who backs a rival administration based in the east of the country, announced an assault on Tripoli, the seat of the internationally recognised government headed by Mr Serraj, on April 4.
The move sparked several days of skirmishes on the southern outskirts of the city and saw both sides launch sporadic airstrikes. The United Nations estimates 4,500 people have been displaced and dozens of people killed since.
But local residents said the pitch of the fighting escalated dramatically on Wednesday.
“Sporadic loud tank gunfire can be heard very clearly in all of Tripoli. My body is still in one piece but my mind is shattered,” said one local resident. "Today it is louder and more violent. Its the fiercest in the last six days."
Fighting was concentrated about seven miles to the south and southeast of the city centre, on the LNA’s main axis of advance. There were particularity heavy clashes around Ain Zara, seven miles southeast of the city centre, where pro-GNA militiamen from the city of Misrata were reported to be using Grad multiple rocket launchers and tank-fired missiles to drive back LNA forces.
The LNA said they had recaptured the disused international airport, which they had earlier lost to government forces, and captured two important barracks, one 30 miles to the south. The reports could not immediately be verified.
The United Nations Security Council was due to meet for a closed door emergency session to discuss the crisis on Wednesday evening.
Gen Haftar has received material, military, and financial backing over several years from a range of governments including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, and Russia, all of which see him as a potential strongman leader with the will to crush dangerous militant Islamist groups.
Critics say they have either willfully ignored or deliberately played down Gen Haftar’s ambitions to become the undisputed leader of the country in the mold of Muammar Gaddafi.
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The United Nations Security Council was due to meet for a closed-door talks on the crisis on Wednesday evening.
Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, said the alliance was "deeply concerned" about the violence and called on all sides to cease fighting.