Rogue Libyan general Khalifa Haftar divides country as violence spreads
Retired Libyan Army general Khalifa Haftar speaks during a press conference in the town of Abyar, 70 km southwest of Bengahzi, on May 17, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/STR)
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Libya’s military and government forces appear increasingly divided over renegade general Khalifa Haftar’s unsanctioned assault on Benghazi amid fears that the clashes could spread to the capital, Tripoli. Local and international media reported heavy fighting involving anti-aircraft batteries in the east of the city on Wednesday, with at least two people reported killed.
The commander-in-chief of Libya’s Air Force, Col. Gomaa Al-Abbani, publicly backed Haftar’s offensive against Islamist militias in the east of the country in a televised address broadcast Tuesday evening. Abbani said: “The Air Force’s Chief of Staff announces its full accession to Operation Dignity [Haftar's operation],” calling on the Libyan people to “support the armed forces in their battle against terrorism and to restore security.”
Tripoli had earlier denounced the former army chief’s “Libyan National Army” as an illegitimate organization, stressing that Haftar’s actions were not a government-sanctioned military operation.
Libya’s Special Forces earlier announced that it would be joining the renegade general’s forces, increasing fears of a civil war. “We are joining Operation Dignity, launched by the Libyan National Army, with all our men and weapons,” Colonel Wanis Abu Khamada announced on Monday. Libya’s Interior Ministry, Military Intelligence Directorate and Tripoli’s Police Directorate also announced their support for Operation Dignity earlier this week.
Despite garnering civil and military support from across the country, Haftar’s Operation Dignity is also facing fierce criticism from some quarters.
The renegade army chief is reported to have survived an assassination attempt at his home in Benghazi on Tuesday evening following the Air Force commander-in-chief’s announcement of support, with guards repelling an attack by unidentified gunmen. The assailants retreated after a gunfight which lasted a matter of minutes.
Haftar was not injured in the attack, sources close to the general told Asharq Al-Awsat.
A Libyan rebel group on Wednesday denounced Haftar, calling on “true rebels” to defect from Operation Dignity. The Libyan Revolutionaries’ Operations Room, based out of Tripoli, issued a statement describing Haftar’s actions as a “military coup.”
“We consider all current military operations as a military coup that aims to dominate power and restore dictatorship by aborting the February 17 revolution,” the statement said.
Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) similarly finds itself split between supporters and opponents of Haftar, as the political crisis in the country continues to escalate.
Libya’s election commission on Tuesday announced that parliamentary elections will be held on June 25, with many Libyans hoping that this will resolve the crisis that currently has different political factions backing different prime ministers, with no single person effectively in charge of the country.
Interim prime minister Ahmed Maiteeq continues to face legitimacy challenges, with many GNC members openly backing the previous interim prime minister, Abdallah Al-Thinni.
GNC First Deputy Izzedine Awami told Asharq Al-Awsat on Tuesday: “Unfortunately, the decision to appoint Maiteeq is illegitimate, and anyone in their first year of law school could see the violations against GNC protocol that characterized his election.”
Libya’s Administration of Fatwa and Law—a division of the Justice Ministry—had earlier ruled Maiteeq’s appointment illegal.
“The Maiteeq government is illegitimate and the Thinni government has sole legitimacy in Libya,” the Administration of Fatwa and Law said in a statement earlier this month.
Maiteeq’s critics say that he is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Haftar himself acknowledged Brotherhood influence in the country, saying his Operation Dignity aims to “purge” Muslim Brotherhood members from Libyan territory in a broad-ranging interview with Asharq Al-Awsat set to be published in English tomorrow.