With UAE and Egypt supporting Haftar while Turkey and Qatar are supporting the internationally-recognized government, the conflict in Libya is turning into a proxy war between regional powers.
Eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar ordered his troops Thursday to march on the capital Tripoli, taking his conflict with the internationally recognized government to a dangerous new level.
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who is in Tripoli trying to push an international peace deal, called for restraint. When asked about Haftar's statement, he said Libya needed a political not a military solution.
Haftar made his order in a video posted online hours after his forces took full control of Gharyan, a town about 100 km (60 miles) south of the capital. "To our army which is stationed at the outskirts of Tripoli. Today we complete our march ... We are going to start shortly," he said in the video titled 'Operation to liberate Tripoli'. There was no independent confirmation that any advance had started.
The capture of Gharyan after skirmishes Wednesday with forces allied to Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj followed a rapid thrust westwards by Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) from his eastern stronghold of Benghazi.
The developments mark a dramatic escalation of a power tussle that has dragged on in Libya since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 in a NATO intervention backed by the United States and its western allies.
The country has been divided between the Western-backed government in Tripoli and a parallel administration allied to Haftar since Gaddafi's downfall.
Armed groups from the coastal city of Misrata, who oppose Haftar, started moving toward Tripoli to defend it against the eastern advance, residents said.
Eastern Libyan forces said two of their soldiers were wounded in clashes as they moved on the capital Tripoli Thursday. They said the clashes took place in the area of al-Heira. "Our forces are moving toward Tripoli from different positions," the forces' spokesman added.
The developments are a setback for the United Nations and Western countries which have been trying to mediate between Serraj and Haftar, who met in Abu Dhabi last month to discuss a power-sharing deal.
A national conference is set to follow this month to agree on a road map for elections to resolve the prolonged instability in Libya, an oil producer and a hub for refugees and migrants trekking across the Sahara in the hope of reaching Europe.
Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists. His opponents see in him as a new Gaddafi. Turkey and Qatar are backing the internationally recognized government which is turning the conflict in Libya into a proxy war between regional powers.
Their advance took diplomats and analysts by surprise while they were focused on neighboring Algeria, where President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned on Tuesday after weeks of protests.
Earlier on Thursday, one of Haftar's commanders said his forces had taken full control of Gharyan. "Right now as we speak I'm driving through the town," Abdelsalam al-Hassi told Reuters by telephone.
Gharyan had been allied to the Tripoli government although some Haftar supporters were also based there.