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US military pulls out of Libyan capital as rival militias battle

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Libyan National Army (LNA) members, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, head out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya April 7, 2019. (Source: REUTERS)

The US military evacuated its small contingent of troops from the Libyan capital Sunday as rival militias raced to stop the forces of an aspiring strongman, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, from taking control of the city.

Forces under the command of Hifter made a surprise advance on the outskirts of the capital, Tripoli, on Thursday, setting up a battle with a coalition of armed factions from the region around the city — the prize in an eight-year fight for control after the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

By Sunday morning, both sides had begun attacking from the air, but the targets and extent of the damage could not be immediately determined.

The US State Department, which previously joined a call by several countries for restraint from both sides, shifted Sunday to urging Hifter to pull back.

“We oppose the military offensive” by his forces “and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement Sunday night. “Forces should return to the status quo ante positions.”

Hifter, 75, has loose control over most of eastern Libya, as well as important parts of the southern desert. His forces’ advance on Tripoli last week has put him in striking distance of fulfilling a vow to reunite Libya.

Some analysts, however, say he has extended his supply lines so far that without a quick victory, he could be forced into a retreat.

Hifter’s forces appeared to have maintained control of the defunct international airport since Friday, putting them within 17 miles of Tripoli’s central square.

Tripoli residents said the two sides had spent the days mobilizing and deploying their forces, with a more pitched battle expected Sunday. By afternoon, residents reported that the coalition of Tripoli-area militias was fighting to drive Hifter’s forces out of the town of Aziziya, about 20 miles southwest of Tripoli.

US military personnel had left by boat Sunday morning, according to a resident who provided photographs of the ship as it departed.

The US military’s Africa Command said its mission in Libya had included providing support to diplomatic efforts, as well as “counterterrorism activities.”

“The security realities on the ground in Libya are growing increasingly complex and unpredictable,” Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser of the Marine Corps, the head of US Africa Command. “Even with an adjustment of the force, we will continue to remain agile in support of existing US strategy.”

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