Libyan forces aligned with Tripoli government capture key air base

Members of Libya's internationally recognised government flash victory signs after taking control of Watiya airbase, southwest of Tripoli, Libya May 18, 2020. REUTERS/Hazem Ahmed

Forces aligned with Libya’s internationally recognised government took control of an air base south-west of Tripoli on Monday after a sustained assault, in what could be their most significant advance for nearly a year.

Watiya air base, 125 km (80 miles) from the capital, has been an important strategic foothold for forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar, who launched an offensive to capture Tripoli in April 2019.

The campaign sharply escalated a long-running conflict between factions based in eastern and western Libya and caused a surge in military intervention by foreign powers.

Forces aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) had taken full control of Watiya, Osama Juweili, a top military commander, was quoted as saying by official media early on Monday.

Footage posted by GNA forces on social media showed them driving down runways at the base unhindered. The forces also posted a picture of what they said was a captured Russian-made Pantsir air defence system mounted on a truck at the base, as well as an operating manual in Arabic.

A separate video post showed the purported destruction from the air of another Pantsir held by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) as it was being transported by road in the early hours of Monday. 

GNA forces said it was the third they had hit in two days. The video could not be independently verified and the LNA has in recent days denied at least one other GNA claim it had destroyed a Pantsir. 

In a statement, the LNA said its forces had withdrawn from the base as a tactical manoeuvre, that Watiya currently held no military importance, and that any equipment recovered there was old and disused. LNA sources said earlier their forces had withdrawn after the base had come under intensive bombardment.