TRIPOLI // Libya’s rogue general Khalifa Haftar, who was preparing an offensive against Islamist groups in the country’s restive east, is a former rebel commander accused by Tripoli of staging a coup.
Gen Haftar unleashed his so-called National Army on Friday against groups he called “terrorists” in Benghazi, Libya’s second city and the hotbed of an Islamist militancy, killing at least 79 people and wounding 141 others.
The attack, backed by warplanes and helicopters, sparked outrage. Tripoli denounced the 71-year-old as an “outlaw” seeking to take advantage of the unrest in the country to mount a coup.
But Gen Haftar said he was just responding to “the call of the people” to defend them against “terrorists”.
The controversial general started his career under Libya’s monarchy.
He graduated from Benghazi’s military academy and travelled to the Soviet Union for training.
But in 1969, Gen Haftar took part in the 1969 coup that overthrew Libya’s royal family, propelling dictator Muammar Qaddafi to power.
He commanded a unit during Libya’s fruitless 1978-1987 war with Chad, but fell from grace with Qaddafi when he was captured by Chadian troops.
Tripoli denied he was part of the Libyan army in that incident.
The US managed to secure his release, in an operation that is still shrouded in mystery, and offered him political asylum.
Gen Haftar accepted and travelled to the US, where he joined Libya’s opposition in exile.
His time in the US gave rise to accusations he was linked to the Central Intelligence Agency – first from the Qaddafi regime, and then from rebel groups during the 2011 uprising.
Gen Haftar returned to his homeland after more than 20 years in exile soon after the uprising against Qaddafi’s regime erupted in 2011, arriving in Benghazi in March that year.
He was named head of the ground forces loyal to the National Transitional Council (NTC), the rebellion’s political wing, and himself commanded a number of officers who had also defected from from Qaddafi’s armed forces.
Gen Haftar was never able to fully win the trust of the interim authorities. They saw him as ambitious and power-hungry, and worried he could go on to establish another military dictatorship, a former NTC member said on condition of anonymity.
His position was further complicated by his fierce rivalry with general Abdel Fattah Yunes, the military head of the rebellion, who was killed in murky circumstances in July 2011.
However, he is widely supported by former soldiers from the Qaddafi regime.
Shortly after the dictator’s fall and death in October 2011, around 150 army officers and non-commissioned officers, tried to name him the new chief of staff.
The NTC never officially recognised the move.
Gen Haftar has made relatively few public appearances since but has spoken out on occasion against the government, which he accuses of boosting the influence of ex-rebel militias and marginalising officers who served under Qaddafi, including those who defected early on in the rebellion.
In February, he caused a fresh stir when he released an online video in which he announced an “initiative” aimed at suspending the interim government and parliament, perceived by some officials as an attempted coup against the authorities.
* Agence France-Presse
Published: May 20, 2014 04:00 AM