Renegade Libya general urges sweeping reforms to end crisis

AFP , Thursday 22 May 2014

General Khalifa Haftar attends a news conference at a sports club in Abyar, a small town to the east of Benghazi May 21, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

A renegade general who has launched an assault against Islamists in Benghazi warned Libya had become a "terrorist hub", calling for a civilian presidential high council to form an emergency cabinet and organise legislative elections.

Claiming to speak in the name of the army, Khalifa Haftar Wednesday urged the country's highest judicial authority "to form a civilian presidential high council tasked with forming an emergency cabinet and organising legislative elections".

Haftar, who was once one of slain dictator Muammar's Gaddafi top generals before falling from grace and going into US exile, was reading a statement broadcast on several Libyan networks.

He returned to support the rebellion in 2011 but has this year emerged as the most serious challenge to the post-Gaddafi authorities born of the rebellion.

"Libya has become a hub for terrorists who control power," said Haftar, who has been branded an outlaw by the authorities after launching an assault in Benghazi on Friday in which at least 79 people were killed.

Speaking from the eastern town of Al Abyar, he said the presidential council he envisions would hand over power to an elected parliament.

Oil-rich Libya has called an election for June to replace its disputed interim parliament, the General National Council, and try to resolve the power struggle, but violence among militias threatens to scupper the vote.

Highlighting the seriousness of the security threat, the navy's chief of staff, Rear Admiral Hassan Abu Shnak, his driver and two guards were wounded Wednesday when gunmen attacked his convoy in Tripoli.

Militias are blamed for growing unrest in the North African country since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that killed Gaddafi.

Successive governments have complained that the General National Council's claim to executive power as well as legislative authority has tied their hands in taming the militias.

The electoral commission said the election for the currently Islamist-dominated GNC would be on June 25.

While some observers doubt it will take place, one Western diplomat told AFP the vote could indeed go ahead.

"The electoral commission has the logistical and human resources needed to organise the elections on schedule," the diplomat said.

The government hopes such a vote could help avoid civil war after Haftar, whom authorities branded an "outlaw," launched an assault Friday on Islamists in Benghazi.

Gunmen from the ex-rebel Zintan brigade, saying they back Haftar, stormed parliament on Sunday and set fire to an annex.

Haftar has won widening support for his campaign to rid Libya of jihadists.

His supporters include an elite special forces unit of the regular army in Benghazi, who have suffered mounting losses in suspected jihadist attacks in the eastern city where Islamists are well entrenched.

Police brigades, officers at Tobruk air base and the powerful Al-Baraassa tribe from the east have also declared support for Haftar.

And the chief of staff of Libya's air defence units, Colonel Jomaa al-Abani, told a private television channel he was joining Haftar's offensive, dubbed "Operation Dignity."

It was not known what prompted the attack on the admiral. Abu Shnak was on his way to work when his convoy came under fire, spokesman Colonel Ayub Kassem told AFP.

"He was lightly wounded in the head. A driver and two guards were also wounded, but their injuries are not life threatening."

Detractors have accused Haftar of being in the pay of the United States, where he lived in exile for two decades, but Washington has distanced itself from the renegade general.

However the United States is ready to help organise new elections in Libya in hopes of ushering in a more stable government, US officials said Wednesday.

"We're prepared to help support elections preparation from here," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, cautioning that Washington was still waiting for official word from Tripoli.

Washington has a range of tools at its disposal, she said, declining to confirm however whether the US would be prepared to help with security arrangements.

Despite the tensions, the situation was almost normal in Tripoli and Benghazi, where shops, banks and governments were open.

Prime Minister Ahmed Miitig called Wednesday for dialogue among all protagonists while affirming that "Libyans don't want to be ruled by the military," referring to the rogue general.

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