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Libya’s Haftar ‘mobilising mercenaries’ for key battle in Sirte

Libyan militia leader Khalifa Haftar has sent thousands of foreign fighters to the frontlines of Sirte as government forces prepare to re-take the key city, according to media reports on Monday.

Convoys of mercenaries – including suspected members of Russia’s Wagner company – passed through the city of Ajdabiya on Sunday, which is located between Haftar’s western stronghold of Benghazi and Sirte, according to Al Jazeera.

These included “more than 3,000 Russian mercenaries” along with fighters from Sudan and Chad, the broadcaster claimed.

The city of Sirte has been the battleground between the internationally-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and Haftar’s self-described Libyan National Army militias.

“Sirte was the most dangerous place in Libya after it became a focal point for mercenaries of the Russian Wagner company,” an army spokesman for the GNA said in a statement on Saturday, warning of what he described as “criminal gangs”.

GNA forces have made major gains against Haftar’s militias in recent months, thanks in part to increased support from backer Turkey.

Sirte – which lies some 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of the capital – is under the control of Haftar’s forces and is seen as a major prize for the GNA.

Last year, Haftar launched an offensive to seize control of western Libya and the capital Tripoli – held by the UN-recognised government.

This failed and led to a successful GNA counter-offensive, which is now approaching Sirte.

In a televised address, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – a key backer of Haftar – said Sirte is a “red line” for Egypt, citing the need for Cairo to protect its porous western border as grounds for “direct intervention” in Libya.

“If the Libyan people asked us to intervene, it is a signal to the world that Egypt and Libya share .. common interests, security and stability,” Sisi said on Saturday.

The GNA denounced Sisi’s warning, saying any intervention would be a threat to Libya’s security.

“We strongly reject what was said by al-Sisi and consider it a continuation of the war on the Libyan people, interference in Libyan affairs and a dangerous threat to national security,” said Mohammed Amari Zayed, a member of the GNA’s presidential council.

“There can be no ‘red line’ within our borders. We reject any bid aimed at dividing the Libyan people or their territory… (and) we categorically reject any bid to impose guardianship on Libya,” he added.

Turkey also vowed to continue supporting the GNA’s push for Sirte and demanded the evacuation of Haftar’s forces from the city for a “sustainable ceasefire”.

Libya has been torn by violence, drawing in tribal militias, mercenaries, and jihadists since the 2011 revolution which toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Like Haftar, the head of the House of Representatives is based in the east of the country, where they are both supported by Egypt.

The GNA has vowed to take Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown and a strategic access point to Libya’s key oil fields.

It is also the last major settlement before the traditional boundary between western Libya and Haftar’s stronghold in the east.

“Some think they can trespass on the Sirte or Al-Jufra frontline. This for us is a red line,” Sisi said.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told AFP in an interview that a ceasefire in Libya would be possible if Haftar’s forces withdrew from Sirte and Al-Jufra.

“It should be a sustainable ceasefire, meaning that the other side, the LNA (Libyan National Army – forces loyal to Haftar), should not be in a position to launch another attack on the legitimate Libyan government any time it wants,” Kalin told AFP in an interview in Istanbul.

Cairo proposed its own ceasefire in Libya earlier this month but it was dismissed by the GNA.

That proposal also called for withdrawal of foreign mercenaries, and disbanding of Libyan militias.

The Egyptian president blamed “external forces” supporting “extremist militias and mercenaries” in Libya for blocking the initiative.

He further urged Egyptian troops to “be prepared to carry out any mission, inside our borders, or if necessary, outside our borders.”

On Friday, the Arab League announced plans to hold an urgent virtual foreign ministers meeting on Libya this week at Egypt’s request.

But the GNA said it would boycott the meeting as it would “merely deepen the rift” between Arab governments on the conflict.

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