Forces loyal to Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar are preparing to advance on the country’s west, including the capital Tripoli, a spokesman said on Wednesday.
Dozens of militias have fought for control of the North African country since a NATO-backed uprising toppled long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
But Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army has emerged as a key player, opposing a United Nations-backed unity government in Tripoli and backing a parallel administration in the east.
Haftar launched an offensive into oil-rich southern Libya in January ostensibly aimed at wiping out “terrorists” and criminal groups and has repeatedly expressed his intention to march on Tripoli.
LNA spokesman Ahmed Mesmari said at a press conference on Wednesday that “preparations are on the point of being completed… to purge the west of terrorists and mercenaries”.
The force’s press office said on Facebook earlier that “several units had headed “to the western region to cleanse it of the remaining terrorist groups”.
An accompanying video showed a column of dozens of armed vehicles moving along a road, but it was not immediately possible to identify their location or destination.
Unity government chief Fayez al-Sarraj called the move an “escalation” and urged Haftar’s forces to “stop using the language of threats”.
He said he had ordered pro-government forces to prepare to “face all threats… whether from terrorist groups, criminals, outlaws and all who threaten the security of every Libyan city”.
Haftar’s advance into southern Libya has been helped somewhat by local support. His forces have been able take certain locations, notably the southern city of Sebha and a key oil field, without a fight.
But analysts say the LNA will face a much tougher challenge in the west, where groups such as the powerful Misrata militias bitterly oppose him.
Sarraj pointed out that Wednesday’s announcement came ahead of a UN-backed conference in mid-April aimed at laying out a roadmap to stabilise the country and hold elections.
“Libyans see (the conference) as a glimmer of hope and a way out of the crisis,” he said, adding that his opponents were aiming to undermine the process.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Libya on Wednesday ahead of the conference aimed at paving the way for elections in the country.