Fresh clashes erupted on Tuesday between Libyan rival factions fighting for control of the country’s biggest oil port Es Sider, killing several people, both sides said.
The fighting came a day after the United Nations said it was seeking a ceasefire to pave the way for a new round of peace talks between rival factions operating two opposing governments, nearly four years after Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow.
Libya’s internationally recognised government under Prime Minister Abdullah Al Thinni and the elected House of Representatives have been based in the east since a group called Libya Dawn seized Tripoli last summer, set up its own administration and reinstated the old parliament.
Separately, troops loyal General Khalifa Haftar tried to block Thinni from visiting Benghazi during the weekend as he looked to show support for his soldiers battling radicals.
Troops loyal to the Tripoli government launched an offensive in December to try to take the eastern Es Sider and Ras Lanuf oil ports, which have had to shut down operations. Both sides had declared partial ceasefires last month which had largely held to give a UN-sponsored dialogue a chance.
Forces allied to Thinni conducted air strikes on Tuesday to stop a new advance of fighters allied to the rival government, a spokesman for Thinni’s forces said.
“There is an attack from them from all sides on the oil ports,” the spokesman said. “But we’ve stopped them.”
The rival force confirmed fighting was taking place. “Our boys are advancing,” said an official of the rival government, adding that five of his troops had died.
On Monday, UN Special Envoy Bernadino Leon visited Tripoli to discuss with the rival assembly restarting the talks within days.
Last month, the United Nation managed to bring some members of the factions to talks in Geneva but the Tripoli-based parliament known as GNC wanted the dialogue to take place inside Libya.
The shutdown of the two ports is a blow to Libya’s crippled public finances as the central bank has been using up its dollar reserves to keep the country afloat.
Army members under the control of General Haftar tried to deny Thanni’s plane permission to land on Sunday and later briefly halted his convoy during the visit, a minister and military officials said on Monday.
“When Thinni’s plane was approaching Benghazi an officer came and said permission to land had been denied,” Interior Minister Omar Al Zanki said. Thinni still managed to land and hold a cabinet meeting in Benghazi after visiting military commanders, he added.
The incident may signal a possible rift in the military alliance between the Thinni’s government and Haftar.
A senior officer travelling with Thinni confirmed that the convoy of vehicles carrying the officials was stopped by an armed group.