Cairo: The Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar are pushing towards a major stronghold of militias fighting for a rival government based in the capital Tripoli.
The move comes as foreign ministers of Egypt, Italy, France, Cyprus and Greece were due to meet Wednesday in Cairo to discuss the latest developments in Libya.
The push for the western city of Misrata comes a few days after the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Haftar seized control of the coastal city of Sirte from the Tripoli government supported by Turkey.
On Wednesday, LNA jets pounded militias positioned in southern Misrata and “inflicted heavy casualties” on them, an LNA military media centre reported.
“The army’s forces are planning to enter Misrata before any Turkish forces,” a senior LNA commander said.
“Our troops are making a steady progress in battles for liberating Tripoli,” the commander told Saudi newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.
The talks being held in Cairo were aimed at putting an end to Turkish intervention in the region, Egypt’s semi-official newspaper Al Ahram said Wednesday.
“The importance of the meeting emanates from the international and regional weight of the participating countries overlooking the Mediterranean,” the paper added in an editorial.
Ankara’s maritime demarcation pact with the Tripoli government gives Turkey disputed access to an eastern Mediterranean zone where Egypt, Cyprus and Greece are jointly drilling for gas.
Italy, Libya’s former colonialist, and France are seen as vying for influence in the North African country.
Campaign launched in April
In April, Haftar launched a major campaign to capture Tripoli from the government of Fayez Al Serraj mainly supported by militia from Misrata.
Last month, Haftar declared a new “decisive” battle to seize Tripoli.
His move came days after Al Serraj signed with Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan contested maritime and security cooperation pacts.
Last week, Turkish parliament authorized the dispatch of Turkish troops in support of the Tripoli government, sparking fears about a further escalation in Libya’s conflict now in its ninth year.
LNA control of Sirte is seen as a major victory in the strongman’s campaign to re-establish stability in oil-rich Libya that has descended into chaos since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-supported armed revolt in 2011.
Sirte, the hometown of Gaddafi, is strategically important because it links Libya’s east and west. Sirte is about 450 kiklometres east of Tripoli.
“The situation is excellent,” said the LNA commander on condition of anonymity. “The militias coming from Misrata have collapsed and fled towards the city. The army is now advancing towards Misrata,” he added.
Tunisian and Algerian rebuffs to Turkey
The military escalation comes amid reported rebuffs from Tunisia and Algeria, two neighbours of Libya, to Ankara on allowing Turkish troops to use both countries as a stepping stone to enter Libya.
Erdogan recently made a surprise visit to Tunisia. He also sent his Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to Algeria this week.
Turkish moves have drawn ire from Egypt that shares a border of about 1,200 kilometres with Libya.
Egypt has repeatedly called for halting foreign intervention in Libya and warned that turmoil there jeopardises regional stability.
Cairo has condemned the Turkish decision to deploy troops in Libya as a “blatant violation” of relevant UN resolutions.
Turkey is believed to have already sent 1,000 allied Syrian rebels to Libya fight on the side of pro-Serraj militias.