Liberation of Benghazi is personal victory for Libyan commander Haftar

The Libyan city of Benghazi has 'entered into new era of safety and peace' as last pocket of militia was ousted, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar has announced

Members of the Libyan National Army, loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, riding over a tank in the eastern city of Benghazi's central Sabri district on July 5, 2017, during a military operation to retake the last remaining neighbourhood under extremist control. AFP Photo
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The capture of the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi from extremist militias by the Libyan National Army is a personal triumph for its commander, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.

The 73-year-old general has made gaining control of the city his personal mission in the last three years, launching Operation Dignity in May 2014 to clear Benghazi of radical fighting groups.

On Wednesday, LNA units backed by heavy artillery and air strikes finally entered the ruined city centre district of Al Sabri, clearing the last enclave of the militants who had once dominated the city, the second largest in the country.

Those militias had included Ansar Al Sharia, blamed by the US for the murder of its ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three US officials in Benghazi in September 2012.

Field Marshall Haftar announced the capture of the city in a televised broadcast that night, appearing in his white military uniform.

“Your armed forces declare to you the liberation of Benghazi from terrorism, a full liberation and a victory of dignity,” he said. ”Benghazi has entered into a new era of safety and peace.”

The LNA said on the final day of fighting that 12 of its forces were killed, with army officials saying more than 5,000 soldiers have died in the three-year campaign, along with an unknown number of radical fighters.

In much of Benghazi, the Field Marshall is very popular, with residents saying the radical militias he has expunged once terrorised the population.

Vivid memories of a wave of assassinations of civil rights activists, politicians, police and army officials in 2012 and 2013 remain, with many blaming the militias, which at the time had bases in the city.

The campaign to rid Benghazi of those groups has been onerous. Much of the once resplendent city centre waterfront is now a pulverised wilderness.

Television images beamed from the city on Thursday showed tanks and jeeps crawling through the shattered streets of Al Sabri, the walls of its buildings pockmarked with bullet holes and shrapnel.

Congratulations flowed from the United Nations Support Mission to Libya (UNSMIL), which on Thursday tweeted: “Welcome the liberation of Benghazi. Hope it is a step toward peace and stability and reconciliation in Libya. No place for terrorism in country.”

Britain’s ambassador Peter Millet tweeted his hope that the defeat of militias in the city would give fresh impetus to peace talks: “Liberation of Benghazi a vital opportunity to move from war to peace in Libya by restoring rule of law and respect for human rights.”

What the liberation of Benghazi has certainly done is further tilt the relative balance of power between the country’s rival governments, one in Tripoli, one in Tobruk.

In Tobruk, the House of Representatives parliament - which supervises the LNA and promoted Haftar to field marshall last year - will feel vindicated in supporting him.

By contrast, the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli has not been able to form an army of its own.

Instead, it relies on the backing of militias which have suffered a string of defeats against the LNA.

In September, the LNA captured four central oil ports, giving Tobruk control of the Oil Crescent, a vast desert tract containing more than two-thirds of the country’s oil production.

The army captured two key air bases in south-western Libya in May, and a month later, captured Jufra air base in the centre of the country.

With the liberation of Benghazi, pro-Tobruk forces now control more than two-thirds of Libya, and many parliamentarians may resist making a peace deal with the UN-backed government while the LNA is in the ascendant.

Field Marshall Haftar himself announced this week his intention to liberate Tripoli from militia control by the end of the year, accusing them of being “terrorists”.

The militias in Tripoli are meanwhile fighting each other, despite the GNA urging them not to.

On Tuesday, in the latest intra-militia battle for control of the city centre Mitiga airport, a rocket landed on a popular nearby beach, killing five civilians and wounding another 15.