Al-Watiya, which Haftar’s LNA used to stage, coordinate and supply operations in western Libya, is a huge loss for the eastern commander.
Forces loyal to Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) on Monday captured al-Watiya air base southwest of the capital Tripoli from forces loyal to eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, in what could be the most major advance for nearly a year.
“We proudly announce the liberation of al-Watiya air base from criminal militias and terrorist mercenaries,” GN Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj said on Twitter.
“Today’s victory will not be the end of the battle. Instead, it brings us closer to the big victory day, the day all cities and territories of Libya are free from the project of hegemony and repression.”
Al-Watiya air base, 125km from the capital, had been an important strategic foothold for Haftar’s forces, which launched an offensive to capture Tripoli in April 2019.
Footage posted on social media appeared to show GNA forces driving down runways at the base unhindered.
There was no immediate comment from Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), though LNA military sources confirmed to Reuters that they had withdrawn after the base had come under intensive bombardment.
The GNA forces also posted images of what they said was a captured Russian-made Pantsir air defence system mounted on a truck at the base, as well as an operating manual in Arabic.
A separate video circulating online and in Turkey’s media purported to show a Turkish drone, which support the GNA from the air, targeting a Pantsir system as it was being transported by road in the early hours of Monday.
GNA forces said it was the third they had hit in two days. The video could not be independently verified and the LNA has in recent days denied at least one other GNA claim it had struck a Pantsir.
Increased Turkish influence
Claudia Gazzini, Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group, said that the GNA’s control of al-Watiya will effectively mean “increased penetration of Turkish influence in western Libya”.
“For the GNA, undoubtedly keeping control of al-Watiya would be a huge success,” she told Middle East Eye.
“But we could also see the threat of potential Turkish use of such base for long-term consolidation of authority. This is something that neighbouring states might not be comfortable with.”
“It also risks triggering an air war with Haftar’s backers, who do not like the prospect of Turkey gaining control of the base,” she added, referring to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Gazzini pointed out that after al-Watiya, the next Haftar strongholds to be under threat from GNA would now be Tarhouna and Bani Walid.
Since the ousting of Gaddafi in 2011, oil-rich Libya has been mired in conflict between the two rival administrations of the GNA in the west and the Haftar-backed government in the east.
Hafar’s LNA launched an offensive 13 months ago to capture GNA-held Tripoli. However, it ground to a halt despite backing from Egypt, the UAE and Russia.
The GNA, meanwhile, is materially backed by Turkey. In January, Ankara deployed advisers, Syrian fighters and equipment to help defend the capital and appears to have stemmed the tide of Haftar’s assault.
Turkish backing has in recent weeks seen the GNA force the LNA onto the back foot, pushing it out of a string of towns west of Tripoli and putting it under pressure in its northwestern strongholds of Tarhouna and the al-Watiya airbase.
Haftar’s forces lost Gharyan, its main forward base south of Tripoli, in its biggest reversal to date in June 2019, but continues to control Tarhouna, southeast of the capital.
The fighting in and around Tripoli has added to terrible conditions for residents, who have been enduring lengthy cuts to power and water supplies during a fierce spike in temperatures.
According to the UN, four-fifths of civilian casualties during the first three months of 2020 were attributable to the LNA.
Libyan Forces Aligned With Tripoli Gov’t Capture Key Air Base
Forces aligned with Libya’s internationally recognised government took control of an air base south-west of Tripoli on Monday after a sustained assault, in what could be their most significant advance for nearly a year.
Watiya air base, 125 km (80 miles) from the capital, has been an important strategic foothold for forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar, who launched an offensive to capture Tripoli in April 2019.
The campaign sharply escalated a long-running conflict between factions based in eastern and western Libya and caused a surge in military intervention by foreign powers.
Forces aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) had taken full control of Watiya, Osama Juweili, a top military commander, was quoted as saying by official media early on Monday.
The GNA posted footage posted on social media appearing to show its forces driving down runways at the base unhindered. The forces also posted a picture of what they said was a captured Russian-made Pantsir air defence system mounted on a truck at the base, as well as an operating manual in Arabic.
A separate video post showed the purported destruction of a another LNA-held Pantsir from the air as it was being transported by road in the early hours of Monday.
GNA forces said was the third they had hit in two days. The video could not be independently verified and the LNA has in recent days denied at least one other GNA claim it had destroyed a Pantsir.
There was no immediate comment from Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) on the loss of Watiya, but LNA military sources confirmed that they had withdrawn after the base had come under intensive bombardment.
The advance comes after GNA forces pushed back against their rivals in recent weeks with increased support from Turkey, capturing towns on the coast west of Tripoli last month.[bnL5N2C12UT]
Haftar’s LNA and its allies still control eastern and southern Libya, including most of the country’s oil facilities, which they have been blockading since January. They also hold Sirte, a city at the centrepoint of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline, which they overran at the start of the year.
The capture of Watiya will further boost morale among GNA forces that were on the back foot late last year, and GNA Prime Minister Fayez Serraj signalled they would try to build on the advance.
“Today’s victory does not constitute the end of the battle but brings us closer than any time before to the bigger victory, the liberation of all towns and regions and bases,” he said in a statement.
The LNA, which is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Russia, has been unable to make significant progress from the outskirts of Tripoli since early on in its campaign.
It lost Gharyan, its main forward base south of Tripoli, in its biggest reversal to date in June 2019, but continues to control Tarhouna, southeast of the capital.
International efforts led by the United Nations to broker a ceasefire and negotiate a political settlement in Libya have so far come to little, as foreign powers have flouted an arms embargo to send in more weapons and operate drones.
About half of the 400,000 people who have fled their homes since Libya’s uprising in 2011 were displaced since the start of Haftar’s offensive last year, according to U.N. estimates.