Group captain Muhammad Qanunu, military GNA spokesman, stands by a MiG 23 aircraft after the capture of al-Watiya air base on Monday. The base fell after weeks of attacks by government forces © Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty

Forces allied with Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli say they have captured a strategic air base south-west of the city from Khalifa Haftar, the renegade general trying to seize power in the country.

The loss of the al-Watiya air base, 125 kilometres south-east of Tripoli, is a significant setback to Gen Haftar, whose forces have been fighting for more than a year to enter the capital and to oust the government there.

Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, confirmed on Monday the fall of the air base. In a statement, he said it joined “liberated towns in Western Libya” and brought “us closer to the day of the big victory”.

Turkish drones were instrumental in the capture of the air base, analysts said. The base fell after weeks of attacks despite the deployment over the weekend by Gen Haftar’s forces of two Russian Pantsir air defence systems.

The conflict in Libya has become heavily internationalised with regional powers providing arms, mercenaries and diplomatic cover to both sides despite repeated calls from the UN for a negotiated solution.

Gen Haftar, who controls most of the country including its oil installations, has the backing of the United Arab Emirates, which has invested heavily in his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

The UAE has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into drones and other weapons which have been airlifted to Libya despite an international arms embargo on the country. He is also supported by Egypt and France. Moscow has provided him with Russian and Syrian mercenaries. 

The Tripoli government is backed by Turkey which has supplied drones and air defence systems and has also sent Syrian mercenaries to join the fight against Gen Haftar.

Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar’s efforts to capture Tripoli have stalled despite arms and support from international backers © Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty

Jalel Harchaoui, Libya analyst at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think-tanks, said the capture of the air base was a blow to Gen Haftar, who has held it since 2014. “The fall of al-Watya revealed confusion and lack of co-ordination on the side of the LNA,” said Mr Harchaoui.

“This will have a psychological impact on the Libyans fighting for Haftar who had believed that he was backed by a tight-knit alliance of states with a vision and a strong military commitment. Now, they have seen the lack of depth of UAE combined with an ambivalence on the part of the Russians. Soon, Turkey will likely turn Watya into a permanent base.”

Gen Haftar’s efforts to capture Tripoli have stalled despite the arms and support he has received from international backers.

This year’s intensification of Turkish military support for the GNA has helped it shore up its defences and seize in recent weeks the towns of Surman and Sabratha in western Libya, analysts said.

Gen Haftar’s forces remain on the outskirts of Tripoli and attacks on the civilian population of the city have intensified in recent weeks as the LNA has increasingly used unguided rockets which sometimes fall on residential areas. GNA forces have also attacked the LNA-allied town of Tarhouna near Tripoli.

On Sunday, health authorities in Tripoli said bombs hit a shelter for displaced people killing at least seven people including a 5-year old child from Bangladesh.

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