Tripoli officials say clashes escalating over Libyan capital

FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2020 file photo, Yazan, 1, sits with his mother before his heart surgery at the Tajoura National Heart Center in Tripoli, Liby...

FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2020 file photo, Yazan, 1, sits with his mother before his heart surgery at the Tajoura National Heart Center in Tripoli, Liby...

CAIRO (AP) — Clashes between rival Libyan forces for control of Tripoli escalated on Wednesday as militias allied with the U.N.-supported government based in the country's capital launched an offensive on a military base held by their rivals, officials said.

The renewed fighting comes despite increased international pressure on both sides to halt the violence over concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus. Libya reported its first case of the virus on Tuesday.

The fighting has been raging for nearly a year between military commander Khalifa Hifter's forces, allied with a rival government based in eastern Libya, and an array of militia loosely linked to Tripoli authorities in the west.

Ossama Gowelii, who heads the so-called joint operation room of the Tripoli militias, said they attacked the al-Waitya airbase on the city's southern reaches, clashing with Hifter's forces who have been holding the base.

Gowelii claimed the militias took the base and arrested a “number” of Hifter's fighters, including foreign mercenaries. He did not provide evidence.

However, their adversaries denied this, claiming they crushed the attack, describing it as a “foolish attempt."

A week ago, the warring sides has expressed commitment to a humanitarian pause in fighting so that authorities could focus on preventing the spread of the coronavirus. There are fears the global pandemic could devastate the war-torn Libya, where a decade-long conflict has ravaged key infrastructure and created dire medical shortages.

So far the only confirmed coronavirus case in Libya is that of a 73-year-old man who crossed into Libya from neighboring Tunisia on March 5, according to the National Center for Disease Control in Tripoli.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Libya on Wednesday voiced deep concern, warning that a possible outbreak would overwhelm the already stretched aid response in Libya.

“The health and safety of all people in Libya, including 345,000 of the most vulnerable, is at risk,” OCHA said.

Hifter forces launched his offensive on Tripoli last April. The chaos in the oil-rich country has worsened in recent months as foreign backers increasingly intervene, despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.

Turkey has sent armored drones, air defenses and more recently Syrian militants with links to extremist groups to prop up the embattled U.N.-backed Tripoli government.

Russia, meanwhile, has deployed hundreds of mercenaries to boost Hifter’s assault. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt also back Hifter with fighter jets, drones and mine-resistant vehicles.