Haftar digs in

Kamel Abdallah , Wednesday 8 May 2019

Deeming phase one of his Tripoli operation complete, Khalifa Haftar presses on while the Government of National Accord calls for support

Tripoli, Libya
A damaged building is seen during a fight between members of the Libyan internationally recognised government forces and Eastern forces in al-Yarmouk south of Tripoli, Libya May 7, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

Libyan National Army (LNA) Command announced Sunday evening the end of the first phase of the operation launched by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to “liberate the capital from the grip of terrorism”, as the LNA communique put it.

The following evening, Fayez Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA), began a tour of European capitals in order to persuade leaders in Rome, Berlin, Paris and London to pressure Haftar into withdrawing his forces to their positions prior to the Tripoli offensive he launched 4 April.

According to the GNA Foreign Ministry spokesman Monday evening, Al-Sarraj planned to meet with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday and with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday.

GNA Foreign Minister Mohamed Taha Siala, Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga, the Presidency Council’s ambassador to the EU Hafez Kaddour, Al-Sarraj’s political adviser Al-Taher Al-Sunni and commander of the Counter-Terrorism Force, Brigadier General Mohamed Al-Zein, accompanied Al-Sarraj on his first foreign tour since fighting erupted between LNA troops and forces on the side of the GNA.

Hostilities that have raged between the two sides for over a month have claimed more than 400 dead and displaced 50,000 people, according to figures cited by the GNA and the UN.

The Italian news agency AKI reported Monday that Conte had held numerous telephone conversations with Al-Sarraj over the weekend in the framework of Italy’s “insistence on the need to reach a ceasefire as soon as possible” and also to find a political solution to the crisis.

Conte also spoke with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. The latter reaffirmed Egypt’s support for all efforts to reach a political settlement to the Libyan crisis in accordance with Libyan territorial unity, support for its national institutions, respect for the will of its people and in keeping with Egypt’s commitment to stability and security in the Middle East.

As Al-Sarraj was setting off for Europe, in a tweet posted on his official Twitter account 1 May, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash wrote that the priority in Libya is “to counter extremism/terrorism” and to “support stability in the long drawn out crisis”. He said the agreement that was reached between Al-Sarraj and Haftar in Abu Dhabi 27 February offered an opportunity to support the UN-led peace process for Libya. “Meanwhile extremist militias continue to control [Tripoli and] derail the search for a political solution.”

Gargash’s remarks sparked anger in Tripoli where officials accused him of fuelling civil war. Siala said the remarks “obstructed efforts to build a civil and democratic state”. Siala criticised “the flagrant contradiction in the remarks of the UAE minister who affirms his country’s support for stability in Libya while simultaneously supporting the war against the capital… overlooking the fact that what Haftar’s attacking forces are doing is the very essence of terrorism.”

With regard to military developments in Libya, a terrorist attack Saturday against a LNA training camp on the road between Sabha city and Tamanhint airport killed nine, according to hospital officials in Sabha, and left several others wounded. There have been divergent reports concerning the identity of the attackers, but the Islamic State group claimed responsibility in a statement posted online.

The following evening, another attack was carried out in the southwestern town of Murzuq, a stronghold of the Toubou tribes, killing three sons of the High Council of State member from that city, Hamed Tanani Brikaw.

The suffering of the ethnically African Toubou tribes has increased since LNA forces invaded Murzuq in March, precipitating violent clashes between the Toubou and the Arab Awlad Suleiman tribes allied with Haftar’s forces. The strife aggravates the difficulties of fostering social peace in Fezzan region.

In the vicinity of the capital, the military situation remains unchanged along the fronts to the south and southeast of Tripoli. LNA forces remained unable to breach the defences of the forces fighting on the side of the internationally recognised GNA.

Although the LNA command, in the communique it released Sunday evening announcing the end of the first phase of the operation to “liberate the capital”, stated that it had accomplished the aims it had set for this phase, it did not state what those aims were. According to some postings on pro-Haftar social media, the main purpose was to draw the militia groups out of the capital so the army could engage them in uninhabited areas, thereby sparing civilian lives and infrastructure.

In a message to his troops delivered Sunday night, the eve of the first day of fasting in Ramadan, Haftar exhorted them to “press on with the fight against terrorism and the battle for dignity”, referring to Operation Dignity that he launched 16 May 2014.

In his message, Haftar held that the terrorism the army was fighting relied on “mercenaries and support with money and arms from various agencies”. He urged troops “to monitor the movements of the enemy closely, identify the areas where they are located accurately, and attack quickly and suddenly”. He also instructed troops to “retain the arms and ammunitions after achieving victory”, “to remain on guard and take precautions against the enemy’s deceptions”, and “to preserve order and cooperation among forces”.

On Sunday, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) issued a statement congratulating the Libyan people on the advent of Ramadan and called for “an extendable one-week humanitarian truce” during which all parties pledge to halt all forms of military operations, “including reconnaissance, shelling, sniper operations and mobilisation of forces”. UNSMIL called “on all parties to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to those in need” and “exchange prisoners and the bodies of the deceased”.

In another sign of sharpening divisions precipitated by Haftar’s campaign, 47 members of the House of Representatives met Sunday at the Rixos Hotel, the former headquarters of the General National Congress in Tripoli, where in an act of protest they elected Al-Sadek Al-Kahili, MP from Tajoura, as interim speaker for 45 days.

The participants in the meeting said that Haftar launched his campaign without obtaining the approval of the House. House Speaker in Tobruk Aguila Saleh, refuted this claim and reconfirmed the House’s support for Haftar and the operation to gain control over the capital.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Haftar digs in

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