Libya’s rogue general prepares to renew offensive amid accusations of attempted coup
BENGHAZI, Libya // An “outlaw” retired Libyan general prepared on Sunday to renew an offensive against Islamist former rebels in the eastern city of Benghazi, after being accused by the authorities of an attempted coup.
Khalifa Haftar appeared determined to pursue his campaign after saying late on Saturday that his withdrawal from the city the day before was so his forces could regroup before attacking again.
At least 79 people were killed and 141 others wounded in fierce clashes in eastern Libya between armed groups loyal to Mr Haftar and Islamist militias, a health ministry official said on Saturday.
Libya’s government accused the rogue general and his irregular forces of trying to carry out a coup as they fight to crush militants in the restive eastern city of Benghazi.
Mr Haftar, who led ground forces in the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Qaddafi, used warplanes and helicopters on Friday to support an offensive in pitched battles.
Giving the latest toll of Friday’s unrest in Benghazi, health ministry official Abdallah Al Fitouri said those wounded had been taken to five hospitals in the area.
Reacting to his pledge to continue fighting until Benghazi is “purged of terrorists”, the army announced a no-fly zone over the port city and suburbs, vowing to shoot down any aircraft that defies the ban.
The government, parliament and army charged that Mr Haftar’s operation was tantamount to a coup against the central authorities.
It is “an action outside state legitimacy and a coup d’etat”, said a joint statement read on state television by Nuri Abu Sahmein, the head of the General National Congress.
“All those who took part in this coup bid will be prosecuted,” said Abu Sahmein, flanked by recently appointed prime minister Abdullah Al Thani and armed forces chief of staff Abdessalam Jadallah Al Salihin.
Mr Haftar denied the accusations.
“Our operation is not a coup and we do not plan to seize power,” he told reporters. “This operation has a precise goal which is the eradication of terrorism” in Libya.
Mr Haftar, who sees himself as the chief of the “national armed forces” and has the support of rogue officers and army units as well as warplanes and helicopter gunships, seemed to act on his own accord.
His threat to purge Benghazi of the “terrorists” is an affront to the authorities, who have struggled to stomp out lawlessness in the North African nation, which is awash with weapons and effectively ruled by a patchwork of former rebels.
Once seen as heroes, ex-rebels, particularly Islamists, have been blamed for attacks that have killed dozens of members of security forces, judges and foreigners in Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 revolt.
Meanwhile, a tentative calm was shattered when a war plane bombed an Islamist position in the northwest of the city, an ex-rebel said.
“We fired at the plane which missed its target,” said the source, adding that there were no casualties.
It was not immediately clear who carried out the raid, which came after Haftar spokesman Col Mohammad Hijazi advised residents in western and southern districts of Benghazi to evacuate their homes.
* Agence France-Presse
Published: May 18, 2014 04:00 AM