Rogue general gets more top allies

2014-05-21 16:41
Retired Libyan army general Khalifa Haftar. (AFP)

Retired Libyan army general Khalifa Haftar. (AFP)

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Tripoli - Libya's ambassador to the United Nations on Wednesday backed a renegade general's offensive against Islamist lawmakers and extremist militias, just hours after the country's air force commander made a similar move, further building support for a campaign the government has described as a coup.

But the show of support for General Khalifa Haftar appears to have triggered a heavy backlash.

Libya's navy chief Brigadier General Hassan Abu-Shanaq was wounded in an assassination attempt in the capital, Tripoli, early on Wednesday, along with his driver and a guard, reported the official news agency Lana. Late on Tuesday, the air forces headquarters in Tripoli came under a rocket attack but no casualties were reported.

Haftar has been leading an armed and perhaps the most significant challenge yet to the country's weak central government and fledgling security forces. His career trajectory has taken him from serving under late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, to exile in the United States, to returning home during the 2011 civil war and joining the rebel movement that toppled Libya's strongman.

In the aftermath of Gaddafi's fall, Libya was left awash with weapons, rebel fighters searching for a new role, fragmented police and military and a security vacuum the militias were eager to fill - a recipe for disaster.

Scores of Libyan military units and commanders have made a series of loyalty pledges to Haftar's "Libyan National Army" and his offensive, which began on Friday, first against Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Then on Sunday, militias allied to Haftar stormed and ransacked Libya's parliament in the capital, Tripoli, as his group declared the lawmaking body suspended. On Tuesday, some lawmakers tried to hold a session at an alternative location to vote on a new prime minister, but came under rocket fire, effectively ending the session.

Libya's UN envoy, Ambassador Ibrahim al-Dabashi issued an announcement on Wednesday, saying Haftar's move was "not a coup ... but a nationalist move."

Al-Dabashi backed Haftar's demands for suspension of Libya's Islamist-led parliament and for transferring all powers to a caretaker government.

He said Libya should be purged of militias, on which the government has depended on to impose law and order, and hand all their weaponry, infrastructure and bases to the military.

Though al-Dabashi, who posted his announcement on his official Facebook page, offered a significant boost for Haftar, he also asked the general and his loyalists not to interfere in politics but restrict themselves to building cohesive military forces.

The ambassador's announcement came hours after Colonel Gomaa al-Abbani, the chief commander of Libya's air force, backed Haftar in a televised address on Tuesday night.

National Forces Alliance

The ministry said in a statement posted on LANA Wednesday that it is backing Gen. Khalifa Hifter's offensive that the government has described as a coup attempt.National Forces Alliance

Shortly after al-Abbani's speech, several rockets reportedly targeted military bases in Tripoli as attackers looted and set fire to offices belonging to the air force. The explosions rattled residents but there was no word on casualties.

Al-Abbani pledged to make a "new Libya a vital player in combating terrorism and violence," while calling upon the people to support the military.

The UN ambassador and the air force chief add to a growing list of Hiftar's backers.

The country's largest political bloc in parliament, which is led by Mahmoud Jibril, Libya's first premier after the civil war that toppled Gaddafi, also threw its weight behind the general. Jibril's group, the National Forces Alliance said in a statement that Libyans have found themselves "drowning in a swamp of terrorism, darkness, killing and destruction."

Ali Zidan, a former prime minister now in exile, and the country's elite Special Forces in Benghazi which have been battling al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic militants from the Ansar al-Shariah group for months, have also backed Haftar.

Hifter's campaign comes as parliament, which is split between Islamist and non-Islamist lawmakers, has been attempting to extend its mandate after it expired in February. The legislature's moves have led to mass demonstrations by disgruntled Libyans, denouncing the lawlessness and incompetence of their first elected council.

Amid the developing crisis, Libya's election commission announced on Tuesday that early parliamentary elections will be held on 25 June.

Since toppling Gaddafi, successive governments have relied heavily on scores of militias - heavily armed groups that formed around ethnic identity, home towns and religion and that grew out of anti-Gaddafi rebel factions.

Coup attempt

Bringing the militias under control has been one of the government's greatest challenges and one in which it largely failed, as militias seized oil terminals and even briefly kidnapped Zidan, the former prime minister.

Haftar served as Gaddafi's army chief, but found himself captured by Chadian forces in the late 1980s. Authorities in Chad later released him and he sought exile in the United States, staying in Virginia. He later joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the country's main opposition group at the time.

In interviews with Arab media in the 1990s, he described himself as building an armed force with US assistance to "eliminate" Gaddafi and his associates.

He returned to Libya and briefly served as a commander of its fledging national army after Gaddafi's death. In February, he re-emerged in Libya via a video in which he addressed the nation while wearing his military uniform and standing in front of the country's flag and a map, proclaiming he intended to "rescue" the nation. Authorities described the video as a coup attempt, though he apparently was never arrested.

In a breaking development the official Libyan news agency says the Interior Ministry has announced its support for a renegade general's campaign against Islamist lawmakers and extremist militias.

The ministry said in a statement posted on Lana onWednesday that it is backing General Khalifa Haftar's offensive that the government has described as a coup attempt.

Read more on:    khalifa haftar  |  libya  |  north africa

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