Benghazi, Libya -- Forces loyal to the United Nations-backed government in western Libya repelled on Friday a rival leader's attempt to seize the capital, Tripoli, raising fears of renewed civil war in the oil-rich nation. Militiamen commanded by renegade generalwere pushed back from a key checkpoint less than 17 miles from Tripoli, the seat of the government backed by most of the Western world.
Amid fears of a new full-scale conflict in the divided North African nation, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres shuttled between the two sides, trying to broker a peace.
Libya, a nation divided
Since the 2011 civil war that led to the toppling and, Libya has been divided in two, with rival governments in east and west. An array of mostly Islamic extremist groups, along with criminal gangs, have all capitalized on the chaos for almost a decade, carving out small fiefdoms and running weapon and human trafficking rings.
Thousands of refugees from the rest of Africa and beyond have made their way to Libya's coast in hopes of making the relatively short boat crossing to Italy, and thousands have died trying.
Hifter, with his Libyan National Army (LNA) defenders, is based in the eastern city of Torbruq, while the nation's capital city Tripoli is home to the U.N.-backed Government of the National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
Social media accounts that back al-Sarraj's government said Friday that he had signed a decree ordering airstrikes and the use of military force in defense of "civilians and critical facilities against terrorists, criminal groups."
Earlier this week, Hifter announced that his forces were marching west on Tripoli, to "liberate" the capital.
The Kremlin has meanwhile denied providing any support for the renegade general, and called for restraint.
Mediation efforts, and warnings
The prospect of a renewed fighting comes as U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres is visiting Libya.
He has extended his stay in the country after arriving in the east where he first met the LNA commander. Guterres said on Twitter that his, "aim remains the same: avoid a military confrontation. I reiterate that there is no military solution for the Libyan crisis, only a political one."
The European Parliament warned on Friday that the LNA's move on the capital could lead the country back into civil war. It would also put at risk upcoming peace talks between Libyan rivals brokered by the U.N. and aimed at drawing a roadmap for new national elections. Those talks are due April 14-16.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency closed-door meeting on Friday afternoon at Britain's request to discuss the unfolding developments.
Several governments and organizations urged de-escalation, including those known to be Hifter's key backers such as France and the United Arab Emirates, without specifically mentioning the commander.
France, Britain, the U.S., the UAE and Italy said in a joint statement Friday that "military posturing and threats of unilateral action only risk propelling Libya back toward chaos."
Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, warned that the stability along the southern rim of the Mediterranean Sea is in danger, with Algeria also in turmoil following the uprising against its longtime ailing president.
Russia, which has thrown its support behind Hifter in the past, distanced itself from the offensive. President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any support for the Libyan commander and emphasized the need "to avoid actions that would lead to the resumption of bloodshed."