A rogue Libyan general who has pledged to rid the troubled North African state of Islamist militias claims his forces now control the majority of the eastern city of Benghazi following a weekend of fighting spilling into Monday leaving 15 dead and more than 40 wounded.
General Khalifa Hifter’s campaign to curb Islamist fighters, whom he says Libya’s weak federal government has failed to curtail, is welcomed by some Libyans frustrated by the chaotic drift of a country that has been wracked by lawlessness, bombings and abductions since the 2011 ouster of longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi.
And the 71-year-old general, a former top military commander in the Gadhafi-era, says he has a popular mandate for his two-weeks old intervention, pointing to recent demonstrations in Benghazi, Tobruk and Libya’s capital Tripoli supporting his self-styled “Operation Dignity.”
But his forces, pieced together from various town-based militias and Libya’s official security forces, have not only focused on al-Qaida-sympathetic Islamist militias but also on the country’s legislature, the General National Congress, which the general accuses of being controlled by political Islamists.
He stormed the GNC last month, insisting on its suspension. That in turn prompted lawmakers to call early elections slated for June 25.
The standoff between the GNC and Haftar, who are backing rival prime ministers, is prompting the alarm of Western governments, who fear the country is on the brink of a full-fledged civil war.
France’s newly appointed Special Envoy to Libya, Denys Gauer said Paris is “worried about the complicated and potentially dangerous situation in Libya – for Libya and for its neighbors”.
And the U.S. State Department has urged Americans working or visiting Libya to leave. The Pentagon has moved the warship the USS Bataan with 1,000 Marines on board close to Libya in case an evacuation is needed.
How the standoff will play out remains hard to predict.
Coup attempts and armed interventions by various groups in ever shifting alliances in post-Gadhafi Libya in the past have failed to do more than add to anarchy before there is a return to an uneasy stalemate.
No one group of militias has been strong enough to assert unchallenged control.
But Haftar has managed so far to pull off a coalition aligning some eastern militias with some western ones, and that has proven elusive in the past, say Western diplomats.
Some Western analysts are sympathetic to Haftar’s taking on Islamist militias such as Ansar al-Sharia, one of the jihadist-inclined groups blamed for the 2012 razing of the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.
But other analysts warn that the rule of the gun will only worsen lawlessness and instability in the country.
“The ultimate solution for Libya’s security woes resides in the political realm — specifically, the drafting of a constitution, reform of the congress, and a broad-based national reconciliation,” said Frederic Wehrey, a Mideast scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Haftar appeared in February on Libyan television to announce that Libya’s government had been suspended. His coup claim was pushed aside by then Prime Minister Ali Zeidan as “ridiculous”.
But over the winter the general set about developing alliances among militias fed up with an oil blockade mounted by eastern federalist groups.
Haftar commands respect among the former Gadhafi-era military. He was a field commander in Gadhafi’s failed expansionary war in Chad in the late 1980s.
Captured in Chad along with hundreds of other Libyans, Haftar was disavowed by Gadhafi, who had previously claimed there were no Libyan forces active in in Chad.
Local residents contacted by phone say that forces loyal to Haftar have slowly but surely been pushing out Islamist militiamen from central districts in Benghazi.
But they questioned the claim by Haftar aides that 80 percent of the city is now under their control.
“The Islamists arte concentrated now on the outskirts but at nightfall they start slipping back in,” says storeowner Mustafa, who asked for his family name to be withheld.
While battles still rage in the east of Libya, in Tripoli lawmakers are locked in dispute over who is the legitimate prime minister.
Three weeks ago the GNC voted in Islamist-backed businessman Ahmed Maiteeq as Libya’s third prime minister in two months. But the outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni refused to relinquish power, claiming irregularities in the appointment of his successor.
Maiteeq’s supporters say Al-Thinni is abusing his post by refusing to go.
The country’s Supreme Court is scheduled to adjudicate the dispute but in the meantime some lawmakers – about 40 – say GNC sessions should be suspended.
While the GNC is splintered the government’s budget is not being passed and public sector salaries will start going unpaid – as will the wages to the militiamen who make up most of the country’s current security forces.