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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. Photo by Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

U.S. pulls forces from Libya amid fighting near capital

BENGHAZI, Libya — The United States said Sunday it has temporarily withdrawn some of its forces from Libya due to “security conditions on the ground,” as a Libyan military commander’s forces advanced toward the capital, Tripoli, clashing with rival militias.

A small contingent of American troops has been in Libya in recent years helping local forces combat Islamic State and al-Qaida militants, as well as protecting diplomatic facilities.

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

He did not provide details on the number of U.S. troops that have been withdrawn or on how many remain inside the country.

The self-styled Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, launched a surprise offensive against the capital last week, a move that could potentially drag the country back into civil war. Libya has been gripped by unrest since the 2011 uprising that overthrew and killed long-ruling dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and in recent years has been governed by rival authorities in the east and in Tripoli, in the west, each backed by various armed groups.

Fighting was underway Sunday at the international airport, some 24 kilometers (15 miles) from central Tripoli, after Hifter claimed to have seized the area. The airport was destroyed in a previous bout of militia fighting in 2014. Hifter said his forces had launched airstrikes targeting rival militias on the outskirts of Tripoli.

The rival militias, which are affiliated with a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, said they had also carried out airstrikes, slowing Hifter’s advance.

At least 23 people, including civilians, have been killed on both sides since Thursday.

The Interior Ministry of the Tripoli-based government said in a statement that at least nine people, including a physician, were killed. It said at least 55 fighters and a civilian were wounded. Ahmed al-Mesmari, spokesman for Hifter’s forces, said Saturday that 14 troops had been killed since the offensive began.

The fighting has displaced hundreds of people, the U.N. migration agency said. The U.N. mission to Libya has called for a two-hour cease-fire on Sunday in parts of Tripoli to evacuate civilians and wounded people.

The LNA is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia. It answers to the authorities based in eastern Libya, who are at odds with the U.N.-backed government.

Magdy reported from Cairo.

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