The offensive comes as the North African country has been the scene of increasing violence since 2011, when former dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled from power after a NATO military intervention. His ouster created a huge power vacuum, leading to chaos and the emergence of numerous militant groups, Presstv Reported.
Libya is now divided between two rival governments — one in the east and another in the west — and each backed by an array of rival militia factions.
The Tripoli-based unity Government of National Accord (GNA) is recognized by the United Nations (UN) as the official government, and is administered by Fayez al-Sarraj. The other government, known as the House of Representatives, is based in the eastern city of Tobruk and is protected by Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).
The power struggle between the two governments has turned the Libyan Desert — the country’s vast desert in the south — into a lawless no-man’s land, and the territory, which shares borders with Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan, is now serving as a haven for armed groups, militants, and rebel fighters.
The region is also the scene of a struggle between Arab tribal groups and Libya’s Tubu ethnic minority, which has long railed against discrimination in the predominantly Arab country.
The LNA announced the start of a military offensive in mid-January and claimed it sought to “purge the south of terrorists and criminal groups.”
During the raid, Haftar’s forces conducted a series of airstrikes and later claimed to have killed a number of members from the al-Qaeda terrorist group as well as other militants operating in the region.
But Libya’s Tubu, part of a larger cross-border ethnic group, said they had been targeted in Haftar’s offensive.
The strikes prompted one Tubu minister in the eastern administration to resign and another Tubu lawmaker in the same body to suspend her activities.
Reacting to the offensive, the Tripoli-based government on Wednesday denounced the “military escalation” in the south, saying in a statement that the region “should not become grounds for political settlement or sedition between social and cultural components.”
The government in Tripoli also said Haftar’s push threatened to sabotage efforts to resolve the political crisis in Libya, with UN-backed polls planned for this year.
Analysts say the LNA’s military push may also be linked to oil interests in the south, where the Tubu ethnic group controls important fields.
The LNA announced late Wednesday that it had taken over one of the country’s biggest oil fields without any clashes.