Rogue Libya general says to press ‘terrorist’ hunt

A day after clashes killed at least 43 people, Khalifa Haftar, who spent years exiled in the United States, vows to free Benghazi of militant groups.

BENGHAZI, Libya // The Libyan army ordered a no fly zone over Benghazi yesterday, a day after a rogue former general used warplanes in an assault on Islamists.

Khalifa Haftar, a retired Libyan general who spent years exiled in the United States, said he would press his campaign to free Benghazi of “terrorist groups”, a day after clashes there killed at least 43 people.

“The operation will continue until Benghazi is purged of terrorists,” Gen Haftar said of the country’s second city, where the uprising against doomed dictator Muammar Qadaffi erupted in February 2011.

A precarious calm reigned in the port city after a deadly day that saw Mr Haftar’s forces target Islamist militiamen with ground and air power.

Local sources said mediation was under way to try to ensure combat did not break out again.

Early Friday, Haftar unleashed his forces on former rebel Islamist groups, vowing to rid Benghazi of a “terrorist” scourge.

The violence, in which the health ministry reported 37 people killed and 139 wounded, came weeks after the government in Tripoli acknowledged for the first time the existence of “terrorist groups” in Libya and said it was mobilising against them.

But the former general would appear to have acted on his own initiative. The government condemned the operation, and armed forces chief of staff Abdessalam Jadallah al-Salihin denied any army involvement in the Benghazi clashes.

“The [regular] army has nothing to do with the clashes. The army did not give any orders for any sort of operation” in Benghazi, he said in Tripoli.

But Mr Salihin acknowledged that some officers and units from the regular army had joined Mr Haftar’s group.

Prime minister Abdullah al-Thani denounced Haftar’s forces as “outlaws” and told a news conference in Tripoli that the army was “in control on the ground”. He also urged restraint.

Mr Haftar heads a group calling itself the National Army, which launched the “large-scale operation to flush terrorists out of Benghazi,” spokesman Mohammed al-Hijazi said on Friday.

“This is not a civil war. It’s an operation against terrorist groups,” added Mr Hijazi who, like Mr Haftar, was an officer in Qadaffi’s army before defecting.

Mr Haftar’s forces pounded former rebel groups in the city, focusing in particular on Ansar Sharia, an organisation designated by the United States as a terrorist group, according to the army.

The fighting subsided on Friday afternoon, an AFP journalist said, as witnesses reported that Mr Haftar’s forces were pulling back.

* Agence France-Press

Published: May 17, 2014 04:00 AM

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