Speaker Aguila Saleh Issa (centre) chairs the first session of the assembly in Benghazi on Saturday. Agence France-Presse
Eastern Libyan forces will pursue their advance on the capital Tripoli, the head of the eastern parliament in the divided country said on Saturday, despite international calls for a halt in an offensive that risks causing many civilian casualties.
His comments came as more clashes rocked the southern outskirts of Tripoli, where eastern forces have been confronted by groups allied to Prime Minister Fayez Al Serraj’s internationally recognised government.
The European Union last week urged the eastern Libya National Army (LNA) to stop its attacks, having agreed on a statement after France and Italy sparred over how to handle the conflict.
But the eastern parliament head said they would press an offensive launched a week ago under military commander Khalifa Haftar, the latest outbreak of a cycle of conflict since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi.
“We need to get rid of militias and terrorist groups,” Aguila Saleh, head of the House of Representatives allied to Haftar, said using a reference eastern officials often make to describe forces allied to the Tripoli government, which relies on support from several armed groups.
“We assure the residents of Tripoli that the campaign to liberate Tripoli will be limited and not violate any freedoms but restore security and fight terrorism,” Saleh told lawmakers in a session in the main eastern city of Benghazi.
Forces loyal to Serraj’s government have so far kept the eastern offensive at bay. Fierce fighting has broken out around a disused former airport about 11km from the centre and an eastern military source said a warplane belonging to the LNA had struck a military camp in an eastern Tripoli suburb.
Saleh also said the United Nations mission to Libya and Serraj’s government had been controlled by armed groups and had failed to expel them from the capital, and promised Libya would hold long-delayed elections after the Tripoli operation ends.
Haftar’s offensive had surprised the UN, which had been planning to hold a national conference on April 14 to prepare Libya for elections.
Italy’s prime minister has said any foreign military intervention in Libya would not resolve the latest conflict in its former colony, warning that it might trigger a refugee exodus across the Mediterranean.
“A military option cannot be a solution,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told daily Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper in an interview published on Saturday.
He said talks involving all sides should be held in a bid to halt the fighting, which has driven at least 4,500 Tripoli residents from their homes.
Conte said any potential military intervention could push many Libyans to flee across the Mediterranean towards southern Europe.
“There is a serious risk that a humanitarian crisis mounts,” he said.
Separately, the UN has expressed its “grave concern” over the detention in Tunisia of a UN expert tasked with investigating violations of a Libya arms embargo.
“The arrest and detention by the Tunisian authorities of Moncef Kartas, while he was performing his official duties is a matter of very grave concern,” the spokesman for the UN secretary-general said in a statement on Friday.
Tunisian Moncef Kartas was arrested in Tunis on March 26 along with a fellow national on suspicion of “spying for foreign parties,” according to Tunisian authorities.
Kartas was on Thursday brought before an investigative judge who “decided to continue” his detention, Stephane Dujarric said.
“The continued detention is in violation of the privileges and immunities that Mr Kartas enjoys,” he added.
The UN has engaged with Tunisia’s government “at the highest levels,” according to the spokesman, making clear its legal position through four separate legal notes.
But the government had “failed to provide an adequate response,” he said.
Tunisia’s interior ministry said last month “confidential documents containing sensitive detailed data capable of harming national security” were seized in relation to UN expert’s arrest.
It also alleged technical equipment for jamming and intercepting communications -- banned in Tunisia -- had been confiscated.
Kartas was appointed to the panel of experts in 2016, tasked with investigating violations of an arms embargo on Libya.