By Sami Zaptia.
London, 18 May 2020:
The internationally-recognized Libyan government based in Tripoli today hailed the victory of its forces today in capturing the Witya airbase in north western Libya, near the Tunisian border. The base had been under pro-Hafter forces since 2014. It is a huge morale victory for Tripoli and a morale-depleting defeat for Hafter’s forces.
The forces defending Tripoli have been attempting to capture the airbase from the Khalifa Hafter forces for weeks now following their takeover of the western towns and cities in April.
Tripoli said the victory was a bridge to a civilian and democratic state. It said the victory was not the end of the battle but brought it closer to a big victory the day when all Libyan cities and territories are totalitarian free. The implication is that it will go on to attempt to free places such as Tarhuna and eastern Libya from Hafter’s control.
It also said that it will document the artillery captured at the base to record violations by the states supporting Hafter and present them to the UN.
Hafter’s forces meanwhile claimed that their troops had made a tactical withdrawal. Conflicting reports say they had escaped and are hiding near Zintan – whilst others say a deal was made to allow them to leave in return for a huge morale victory for the forces defending Tripoli.
The Tripoli defending forces claimed that they had captured a huge hoard of arms and vehicles on the base. Social media videos have been exhibiting arms and vehicles purportedly captured there. There are also unconfirmed reports of the destruction of Hafter’s Pantsir anti-aircraft systems.
However, Hafter’s spokesperson, Ahmed Mesmari, refuted this. Speaking to Arab media outlets he claimed no armament or vehicles were captured. He insisted the Libyan National Army (LNA) had made a tactical withdrawal with all its arms and vehicles. He also claimed that the base was not a strategic gain but a morale one for the forces defending Tripoli.
The loss of the airbase will be a blow to Hafter’s LNA. It comes on the back of the loss of Gharian in June last year and Sabratha, Surman and the western coastal region in April this year. It sets a trend and gives the impression that Hafter is losing momentum and on the retreat – and especially since Turkey’s intervention on the side of Tripoli and imposition of air dominance. It also raises questions of whether his allies are reducing their support for him. Time will tell.
Analysts say Turkey could keep the airbase as a permanent base for a strong foothold in the region.