Libya’s strongman cracks the whip

khalifa-belqasim-haftarThe internationally recognised Libyan government’s appointment of controversial anti-Islamist general Khalifa Haftar  (right) as its army commander marks a hardening of its line against extremist-led opponents. Gen Haftar’s appointment came as both the government and opposition Libya Dawn forces launched airstrikes on each other in an escalation of a six-month civil war that has torn the country apart. Government jets bombed Tripoli airport, controlled by Libya Dawn, while opposition jets struck Es Sider, Libya’s biggest oil terminal.

Gen Haftar has been leading a campaign named Operation Dignity against Libya Dawn, a coalition of militias led by extremist groups, in a war that has torn much of the country apart and forced 400,000 people from their homes.

Until now, the General’s campaign was largely independent of the internationally recognised government based in Tobruk, relying on supporters from the army and air force and pro-Dignity militias. His appointment as army commander, which was announced on Monday, is apparent confirmation of official support for the Dignity campaign, which has battled extremist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Hours after Haftar’s appointment, the Libyan air force launched airstrikes on Tripoli airport, Libya Dawn’s main air hub, and threatened strikes against Misrata airport. Libya Dawn planes in turn bombed Es Sider, though the government which controls the port said no damage was done.

Gen Haftar is a controversial figure in Libya. In 1969 he joined former dictator Muammar Qaddafi in his coup against the former king, Idris. But the general later fell out with Qaddafi, blaming him for defeat in an abortive war with neighbouring Chad, and he defected to join a CIA-led anti-Qaddafi force. That force later disintegrated and Haftar settled in America, returning  to help lead rebel troops, backed by Nato airstrikes, in the revolution against Qaddafi.

Gen Haftar failed to win support for a senior army position after the revolution, but emerged early last year as a key opponent of the then government led by extremist religious parties. In May 2013 he launched Operation Dignity, targeting extremist militias in Benghazi, including Ansar Al Sharia, blamed by Washington for the killing of its ambassador Chris Stevens the year before. Supporters praise him for bringing organisation and focus to a military operation now fighting both Libya Dawn and ISIL forces across Libya. Opponents accuse him of aggression in using airstrikes and tanks against the extremist groups rather than opting for negotiations.

Earlier this year the internationally recognised government in Tobruk brought Haftar out of retirement, in effect siding with his Operation Dignity. His elevation now to the top job is likely to be interpreted as a sign that the government will push for a military solution to Libya’s conflict. That conflict has raged since last summer, when Libya Dawn rebelled against the newly elected government, capturing Tripoli and forcing the parliament to flee to Tobruk.

Gen Haftar’s recent appointment will also complicate the dwindling chances of UN envoy Bernadino Leon mediating a peace deal. Mr Leon has been trying to bring Libya Dawn and the government together for six months, abandoning attempted talks due in Morocco last week after abandoning similar attempts in Geneva earlier this year.

Libya-war-1The UN envoy has been calling for a “government of national unity” to bridge the divide between the elected government and Libya Dawn, hoping it can enforce a ceasefire. Gen Haftar’s appointment makes Mr Leon’s job all the harder, with Dawn likely to refuse to sit down with a man they accuse of dictatorial tendencies.

With the appointment, the government will hope to better integrate its small regular army and air force with pro-government militias in a military campaign in which it has vowed to retake Tripoli from Dawn forces.

Meanwhile, fighting is raging across much of Libya, with battles in the suburbs of Benghazi, fighting close to Es Sider oil terminal and combat along front lines near the south-western town of Zintan. Gen Haftar’s forces have recaptured much of Benghazi from Ansar Al Sharia in recent months, but at heavy cost, with hundreds dead and much of the town destroyed. Diplomats fear that as the war continues, ISIL, which has set up three bases in Libya, will continue to grow. Last month the UN Security Council turned down a Libyan request, backed by Egypt, to lift an international arms embargo, fearing it would mean yet more destruction.

This article by John Pearson originally appeared in The National 

The BBC in London went on to note how the former general is a divisive figure amongst Libyans. He has drawn praise for attempts to bring order to the chaos in the country but criticism for his aggressive use of force, including air strikes.His critics say he targeted both moderate and hardline Islamist groups in the east, which further radicalised some people, reported BBC Libya correspondent Rana Jawad.

As a young military officer he helped Colonel Muammar Gaddafi come to power, before fleeing the country in the 1990s to live in the United States. He returned to Libya to fight against Gaddafi in the 2011 revolution, but it was only in 2014 that he rose to prominence with a vow to rid Libya of violent Islamists. Initially the leader of a rogue militia, in recent months the government and Gen Haftar have sought to integrate their forces. As well Libya Dawn, which has formed a rival administration, the government also faces threats from jihadist groups, including the Islamic State group, which claims to have taken control of the city of Sirte.

RTR2J9IH1298931718The same group that recently released a video appearing to show the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians, leading to retaliatory airstrikes by Egypt. In recent days Islamist militants are reported to have seized two oil fields in central Libya, as rival groups fight for control of the country. Forces guarding the Bahi and Mabruk sites retreated after running out of ammunition. It is not clear which group seized the oil fields. Libya’s internationally recognised government in Tobruk and its rivals Libya Dawn also conducted air strikes on each other’s positions. Libya has been without an effective government since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011. Mabruk, about 310 miles (500km) east of Tripoli, is one of Libya’s biggest oil fields. It had been closed for some weeks because of violence and a slow-down of exports.”Extremists took control of the Bahi and Mabruk fields and are now heading to seize the Dahra field following the retreat of the forces guarding these sites,” said Colonel Ali al-Hassi, a spokesman for the oil industry security service.

The BBC’s Rana Jawad in Tripoli says the seizure of these fields will put more pressure on Libya’s oil-reliant economy, already barely functioning because of the battles between rival forces driven by political differences and local grievances. Their capture by Islamist militants with no known allegiances to the other power blocs adds a new and more complicated dimension to Libya’s growing state of chaos.



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