Fayez al-Sarraj, right, and Khalifa Haftar. Picture: ABDULLAH DOMA/MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP
Fayez al-Sarraj, right, and Khalifa Haftar. Picture: ABDULLAH DOMA/MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP

Tripoli — Libya’s UN-recognised government scored another battlefield victory Monday against strongman Khalifa Haftar, capturing a key rear base used by his fighters in a conflict now in its second year.

Haftar, who controls swathes of eastern Libya, launched an offensive in April 2019 against the capital Tripoli, seat of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

On Monday, the GNA said its forces had seized the strategic Al-Watiya airbase southwest of Tripoli, representing the latest in a string of setbacks suffered by Haftar's camp in recent weeks, including the loss of two key western coastal cities in April.

“We proudly announce the liberation of Al-Watiya base,” 140km southwest of Tripoli, said Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the GNA, in a statement.

The capture of Al-Watiya comes after a weeks-long siege by pro-GNA forces of the base, where Haftar had stationed aircraft for bombing runs.

Haftar's forces did not immediately confirm their retreat from the base, but pictures taken by AFP at the scene showed GNA troops inside the base.

Wolfram Lacher, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said the airbase had been Haftar's “last foothold on the [western] coastal plain”.

In recent weeks pro-GNA forces had stepped up air strikes against Haftar’s fighters, targeting their supply lines around Al-Watiya.

“Today’s success is not the end of the battle but it brings us closer than ever to victory when all cities and regions will be liberated and the tyrannical bid threatening democracy [is] crushed,” Sarraj said.

Hamish Kinnear, an analyst for Verisk Maplecroft, described the loss of the airbase as “another blow” for Haftar's forces, after the strongman lost the cities of Sorman and Sabratha in April.

Libya has been in chaos since a 2011 Nato-backed uprising that ousted and killed veteran dictator Muammar Gaddafi, with the main fault-line in recent years pitting Haftar against the GNA.

The conflict has been worsened by foreign military intervention, with the United Arab Emirates and Russia backing the eastern-based strongman, while Turkey supplying the unity government.

Unwinnable war

Before seizing Al-Watiya, GNA forces pounded it from the air using drones supplied by Turkey, while also bombarding the town of Tarhuna.

“Once again, the GNA's advances were enabled by extensive Turkish military support”, Kinnear noted.

GNA forces spokesperson Mohamad Gnounou said loyalists had destroyed three Russian-made anti-aircraft systems in the airbase since Sunday, before the missile defences could be deployed by Haftar's forces.

According to the GNA, these systems were provided to Haftar by the United Arab Emirates.

GNA commander Mohamad Gammoudi said the final attack on Al-Watiya was launched at dawn Monday, with air support, as the base was surrounded on three fronts.

“We did not meet with much resistance. A few armoured vehicles tried to slow down our advance while providing cover for retreating Haftar militiamen,” he added.

Haftar's forces had occupied Al-Watiya since 2014, and used it as a launch pad for air attacks on GNA positions. According to military sources all his aircraft have been destroyed in the battle for Tripoli.

Lacher said the withdrawal of Haftar's fighters from Al-Watiya would ease pressure on GNA forces. The capture of the base “frees up GNA forces from western cities to move to front-lines south of Tripoli. It also strengthens the sense among anyone except Haftar's true believers that his war is unwinnable”, he added.

In January, world leaders committed to ending foreign meddling and to upholding a 2011 weapons embargo, but the UN has warned that both sides have continued to receive arms and fighters.

Strikes have targeted civilian infrastructure and hospitals. Tripoli's only working airport, Mitiga, has repeatedly come under attack since Haftar launched his offensive in 2019.

The battle for Tripoli has left hundreds dead and displaced more than 200,000 people.