Haftar's forces in Libya ban U.N. flights to embattled capital

By Ayman al-Warfalli and Ulf Laessing
FILE PHOTO: Damage is seen after a shell fell on a residential area in Hadba al-Badri district, in Tripoli

By Ayman al-Warfalli and Ulf Laessing

BENGHAZI, Libya/CAIRO (Reuters) - Eastern Libya forces will not allow the United Nations to use the only functioning airport in the capital Tripoli, a spokesman for the group that has been trying to capture the city from the internationally recognised government said on Wednesday.

The U.N. earlier warned flight restrictions by commander Khalifa Haftar's forces known as the Libya National Army (LNA) were hampering humanitarian and mediation efforts in the oil-producing country embroiled in a conflict between loose alliances from western and eastern Libya since 2014.

The LNA, which is backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, has been trying since last April to take Tripoli but has failed to breach the city's defences.

However, it has air superiority thanks to UAE-supplied combat drones, which cover the whole of Libya via a satellite link, a U.N. report said in November.

LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari told reporters in the eastern city of Benghazi that the United Nations would have to use other airports such as Misrata because it could not guarantee the safety of flights into Tripoli Mitiga airport as Turkey was using it as a base.

Turkey has supplied combat drones to Tripoli operating in the past out of Mitiga and also sophisticated air defences for the capital.

On Wednesday, the 15-member U.N. Security Council passed its first resolution on Libya since the Tripoli war broke out, expressing "grave concern over the exploitation of the conflict by terrorist and violent groups" and demanding that the parties commit to a lasting ceasefire according to terms agreed by the country's Joint Military Commission.

It expressed concern over the growing involvement of mercenaries in Libya.

David Schenker, the senior U.S. diplomat for the Middle East and North Africa, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee the task of bringing the Libyans back to the negotiating table had been complicated by the involvement of external actors.

"Libya is not the place for Russian mercenaries, or fighters from Syria, Chad and Sudan. It is not the place for the Emiratis, Russians, or Turks to be fighting battles on the ground through intermediaries they sponsor or support," he said in prepared testimony.

The Joint Military Commission includes five senior officers from the LNA and five aligned with the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

The rival factions began U.N.-led talks in Geneva last week aimed at securing a ceasefire, but a first round failed to yield an agreement.

The U.N. mission in Libya (UNSMIL) earlier said the LNA had in the past three weeks several times blocked U.N. flights carrying staff to and from Libya.

A humanitarian source said Haftar was imposing a "no-fly zone" for Tripoli and there were concerns that U.N. flights could be a possible target.

U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame has been mediating between Haftar and the Tripoli government.

Relations have been difficult as UNSMIL has condemned air strikes blamed on the LNA, though mostly without mentioning the force by name.

Ties worsened when the U.N. said in a report last month that Haftar's main stronghold Benghazi had turned into a "hub for illicit economic activities, including the sale of drugs and arms". The U.N. also criticized activities of armed groups in western Libya.

The LNA's Mismari again accused Salame of being biased against the LNA, a charge denied by the United Nations.

UNSMIL has a base in Tripoli and also provides humanitarian relief for migrants and people displaced by the conflict with about 170 staff spread between Libya and neighbouring Tunisia.


(Reporting by Omar Fahmy, Ulf Laessing, Ayman al-Warfalli and Emma Farge; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Grant McCool and Christopher Cushing)