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Thousands flee fighting in Tripoli

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A government soldier checks weapons of a military vehicle in southern Tripoli, Libya, April 8, 2019. Xinhua

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Eastern-based forces battled troops loyal to the Tripoli government in the outskirts of Libya’s capital on Wednesday as thousands of residents fled the fighting.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar held positions in the suburbs about 11 km south of the city center. Steel shipping containers, sand barriers and pickups with mounted machine-guns blocked their way into the capital.

Residents reported LNA planes buzzing Tripoli as anti-aircraft guns fired at them.

On the ground, Mr Haftar’s forces were fighting forces aligned with Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj at the former international airport and in the district of Ain Zara, witnesses said.

A Reuters reporter in downtown Tripoli could hear gunfire and explosions, which continued into late afternoon.

The United Nations said at least 4,500 Tripoli residents had been displaced, most moving away from homes in conflict areas to safer districts. Many more were trapped, it said.

The LNA forces moved out of their stronghold in eastern Libya to take the sparsely-populated but oil-rich south earlier this year, before heading a week ago toward Tripoli, where the internationally-recognised government sits.

Libya has been divided and anarchic since the 2011 toppling of strongman Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled for more than four decades before falling in a Western-backed popular uprising.

Since then, political and armed factions have vied for power and control of the North African country’s oil wealth.

After a battle for Tripoli in 2014, the country split into rival eastern and western administrations linked to shifting military alliances.

The United Nations, which wants to bring both sides together to plan an election and a way out of the chaos, has appealed for a ceasefire.

The UN Security Council met behind closed doors on Wednesday with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said there was still time for a ceasefire “to avoid the worst, which would be a dramatic, bloody battle for Tripoli.”

“We have a very dangerous situation and it is clear that we absolutely need to stop it,” Mr Guterres told reporters after the meeting.

As the fighting rumbled on, UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame met Mr Serraj and the head of a Tripoli-based assembly opposed to Mr Haftar to discuss the situation, his office said.

Mr Haftar’s forces published on Facebook a video purporting to show their seizure of a government base in the Aziziya district of southern Tripoli.

The images, which could not be verified, showed a vehicle on fire and soldiers firing in the air, shouting “Allahu Akbar!”, or “God is greatest” in Arabic.

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