By David D. Kirkpatrick
A military leader who has vowed for years that he would seize controlof Libya ordered his troops on Thursday to march on the capital, Tripoli.
By nightfall, they had come within 25 miles of the city and a powerful rival militia was racing to stop them, raising the possibility of renewed civil war.
The advance, by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, appeared to mark a new and possibly decisive stage in the power struggle that has torn Libya apart since the Arab Spring uprising of 2011.
The move all but obviated plans for peace talks this month among competing Libyan factions. The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, had arrived in Tripoli for that purpose the previous day. On Thursday he urged “calm and restraint.”
“I am deeply concerned by the military movement taking place in Libya and the risk of confrontation,” he said in a message posted on Twitter. “There is no military solution. Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems.”
In a joint statement on Thursday, the United States, Britain, France, Italy and the United Arab Emirates said they “urge all parties to immediately de-escalate tensions” and “will hold accountable any Libyan faction that precipitates further civil conflict.” The statement did not specify who had instigated the latest confrontation.
The United Nations Security Council was expected to meet on the crisis on Friday. In an online video, General Hifter, 75, nonetheless directed his troops to continue their march.
“To our army stationed to enter Tripoli, today with God’s help we complete our triumphant path,” he declared. “We respond to the call of our beloved people in our beloved capital.”
On Thursday, his militia said it had taken three towns on the outskirts of Tripoli — Gharyan, 60 miles to the south; Surman, 50 miles to the west; and Aziziya, 25 miles to the southwest.
News reports indicated that there had been only minor violence, and it was unclear to what extent General Hifter had struck bargains with local authorities to allow his troops to enter, or to what extent he fully controlled those towns.
Libya has been plunged into chaos since the ouster of the dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, with rival cities and militias competing for power. The bedlam has slashed the country’s oil production, drained much of its sovereign wealth, offered havens to Islamist militants and turned its long Mediterranean coast into a major point of departure for African and Middle Eastern migrants fleeing to Europe.
After announcing in 2014 that he intended to unify the country under his rule, General Hifter, a former officer in Colonel Qaddafi’s army and a onetime client of the C.I.A., struggled for the next three years to wrest the city of Benghazi from the domination of Islamist militias.
He received extensive support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who were joined later by France and to a limited extent Russia, and he eventually established his control over much of the eastern region of the country. His surprise thrust on Thursday appeared to be a gamble that he could now seize control.
Analysts said his advance amounted to a bet that, in part by creating an aura of inevitability about his emergence as Libya’s next strongman, he could strike deals with local armed groups around Tripoli to co-opt them, as he has done successfully in other regions.
But so far his advance has had the immediate effect of uniting many previously disparate regional militias around Tripoli against him.
Militia leaders from the city of Misurata — the most formidable power to rival General Hifter — said Thursday that they were mobilizing their forces to Tripoli to stop him.
“We are ready for this tyrant with every strength we have,” the militia leaders said in a statement. “We are ready as always to stop this advance.”
At age 75, analysts said, General Hifter may sense that he has a limited time to fulfill his ambition.
“For Hifter, it is all or nothing,” said Wolfram Lacher, a scholar of Libya at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “This is clearly a power grab, but if he fails he will suffer a devastating defeat. He will not be able to sustain his supply lines.”
The transitional political process begun after Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster broke down in 2014, around the time General Hifter declared his intent to take over. When the country collapsed into civil war, the United Nations, with the support of the United States and other Western governments, tried to resolve the conflict by standing up a unity government based in Tripoli.
With no armed force under its own command, the Tripoli government depended for security on a fractious array of local militias with their own conflicting motives, including many that United Nations experts have said are involved in migrant smuggling, extortion and other crimes.
But General Hifter’s rule brought a measure of stability to his territory, and a rough equilibrium developed between the Tripoli government in the west and General Hifter in the east. The Central Bank in Tripoli continued to pay salaries of public employees in General Hifter’s domain, including his soldiers, and General Hifter allowed the Tripoli government to sell oil shipped through ports he controlled.
That balance broke about two months ago when General Hifter’s forces pushed for the first time into the southern desert. He reached deals with local tribes without violence, and in the process gained control of one of Libya’s largest oil fields, Sharara. Many analysts predicted then that it was only a matter of time before he moved toward the capital.
Some argued Thursday that General Hifter might yet be able to reach accommodations with some local armed groups around Tripoli to win them to his side.
But as the first signs of General Hifter’s advance emerged Wednesday, the head of the United Nations-backed unity government in Tripoli, Fayez al-Serraj, urged him to “stop using the language of threats.” In a statement on social media, Mr. al-Serraj ordered all forces loyal to his government to prepare to face down any intrusions, including “from terrorist groups, criminals, outlaws and all who threaten the security of every Libyan city.”
Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting.
David D. Kirkpatrick is an international correspondent based in the London bureau of the New York Times. From the beginning of 2011 through the end of 2015 he was the Cairo bureau chief. He was a Washington correspondent and a national correspondent, based in New York.
The New York Times