Battles erupted around Tripoli on Wednesday following intensified bombardment of the Libyan capital, defying international pleas for a truce to tackle the coronavirus after the first case was confirmed in the country.
The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) launched an assault on several fronts early in the day, including an attack on an airbase west of Tripoli, according to both sides.
However, later on Wednesday the Libyan National Army (LNA) of eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar said its forces moved from repelling the attack to capturing territory near Zuwara, 30 miles (45km) north.
“Attacks and counterattacks in Libya continue to inflict further suffering and civilian casualties,” the U.N. mission said in a tweet, calling for an immediate halt to the violence.
Residents of Tripoli, seat of the GNA, said the shelling was the worst in weeks, shaking windows in the city centre miles from the front line in the southern suburbs.
“We are done in this country. There is a war and we hear clashes all day, fearing a missile will fall near us. Now there is coronavirus. If it spreads in Libya, I think we can only pray,” said Issa, 30, a shop owner in Tripoli.
The LNA has been trying to capture the capital for almost a year, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia. The GNA is supported by Turkey and allied Syrian fighters.
An LNA shelling attack last week drew U.N. condemnation after it killed four girls and young women. On Tuesday, shells hit a prison in an area held by the GNA, also drawing U.N. anger.
Pro-GNA forces attacked al-Watiya airbase, 125 km (80 miles) west of Tripoli and the closest such facility to the capital in LNA hands, early on Wednesday, leading to intense clashes.
“In response to the heaviest bombardments Tripoli has seen, we launched a series of counter-attacks against Haftar,” Mohamed Geblawi, spokesman for the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.
Geblawi cited what he called “indiscriminate shelling” by the LNA after both sides had agreed to a ceasefire to tackle the coronavirus.
The LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari said it was the pro-GNA forces that had broken the truce. The LNA had repulsed the attack and later captured the areas of Zaltan, al-Jameel, al-Assa and Raqdalin near the GNA-held town of Zuwara, he said.
A fighter in the pro-GNA forces said the battle would continue. “It was a successful operation during the progress and the attack, and these operations will continue,” he said by phone.
The escalation in the fighting could spell disaster for Libya’s already fragmented and badly stretched health system in handling the coronavirus, after authorities confirmed the first case of the disease late on Tuesday.
“Libyans have suffered for years under this brutal conflict, and now they face yet another threat to their health and wellbeing,” said Elizabeth Hoff, the World Health Organisation representative in Libya.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had called for a complete ceasefire in conflicts around the world as governments and local authorities struggle with a pandemic that has spread to most countries.
“We sit at home hearing the clashes, which are a daily routine since 2011. But now we are scared of coronavirus. I am scared for my family. Libya doesn’t have a good healthcare system,” said Akram, a 28-year-old barista in Tripoli with three children.