CAIRO -- Eastern Libyan forces laying siege to the country's capital of Tripoli accused their rivals Tuesday of staging an attack in which a Turkish drone hit a food truck convoy in the country’s west, killing at least five civilians.
The militia groups loosely allied with a U.N.-supported but weak government in Tripoli denied attacking civilians, saying they targeted trucks carrying equipment and ammunition for eastern forces trying to take the capital.
Khalifa Hifter, who declared the start of an operation to root out the militias and unify the country in 2014, is commander of the east-based forces attempting to take control of Tripoli. They control most of eastern and southern Libya. The embattled administration in Tripoli rules just a corner of the country’s west. Both sides are supported by a network of fractious militias and foreign powers.
The Tripoli-based health ministry reported Tuesday that at least six artillery shells launched by Hifter's forces struck a local field hospital, causing severe damage to the clinic and to several of its ambulances. Patients being treated were evacuated and there were no immediate reports of casualties. It was the third assault on a medical facility in the besieged city in a week.
Hifter launched his Tripoli offensive last April. In recent weeks, violence has escalated, with both sides accusing each other of shelling civilian neighborhoods. The U.N. has said the violence and worsening humanitarian crisis in Libya could amount to war crimes.
Turkey has sent armored drones, air defenses and more recently, Syrian militants with links to extremist groups to prop up the embattled Tripoli government. Meanwhile, Russia has deployed hundreds of mercenaries to boost Hifter’s assault. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt also back Hifter.
There was no immediate comment from Turkish officials on the alleged drone attack.
Ahmed al-Mosmari, a spokesman for Hifter forces, said the drone strike took place late Monday near the district of Mizda, 184 kilometers (114 miles) south of Tripoli.
The attack came after Hifter, in an attempted show of strength, declared Monday that a 2015 U.N.-brokered political deal to unite the oil-rich country was “a thing of the past.”
The Tripoli-based government said it wasn't surprised by Hifter’s announcement and urged Libyans to join “a comprehensive dialogue and continue on the democratic path to reach a comprehensive and permanent solution based on ballot boxes.”
While the 2015 agreement has failed to bring unity or stability to the divided country, Hifter’s announcement threatens to further complicate U.N. efforts to broker a political settlement to the civil war.
Stephanie Williams, acting U.N. envoy in Libya, said Tuesday the 2015 agreement and the political bodies it created remain the sole governing framework recognized internationally in Libya.
She said any political change should be carried out through democratic means and called for a humanitarian truce during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that could pave the way for a permanent cease-fire.
In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano on Tuesday said “any attempt to push forward unilateral solutions, even more so by force, will never provide a sustainable solution for the country.”
Stano said the December 2015 agreement remains the mos viable framework for a political solution in Libya. He called on international stakeholders in Libya to “increase their pressure” on the warring parties to end the fighting and bring about a political settlement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that Moscow did not approve of either Hifter’s statement or a refusal by the Tripoli-based prime minister, Fayez Sarraj, to hold talks with Hifter, according to state-run media.
Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at The Netherlands Institute of International Relations, said Hifter’s move was “pretty much a coup” that revealed “aspirations that aren’t new.”
The move could also give the military commander an opportunity to take economic measures to address serious economic and financial crises in areas under his control.
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The chaos has worsened in the recent round of fighting as foreign backers increasingly intervene, despite their pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.
Associated Press writer Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.