Libya’s PM says foreigners arming strongman’s Tripoli push

The US recognises Khalifa Haftar’s (centre) role in combating terrorism. (AFP pic)

TRIPOLI: The leader of Libya’s internationally recognised government said foreign backers have been arming strongman Khalifa Haftar since he launched an offensive to take the capital, Tripoli, and warned of a proxy war.

Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj declined to identify the countries. But states including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia have provided weapons in the past to the leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army, the country’s largest and most organised force.

The offensive, launched about two weeks ago, has stalled on Tripoli’s outskirts, and efforts to mediate a truce have been unsuccessful. Sarraj says he won’t negotiate until Haftar withdraws his forces, and that he’s disappointed by the muted international reaction to the assault.

US President Donald Trump spoke to Haftar last week, recognising his role in combating terrorism, as Washington and Russia stymied a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire.

Analysts said the language suggested a reversal by Washington, which had initially demanded the withdrawal of Haftar’s forces. But Sarraj said in an interview on Monday that the US administration informed him it remains opposed to the assault.

“We deal with statements from the State Department and direct contacts with the American administration and the message is very clear: They are not pleased with the attack on Tripoli,” he said.

Without a quick resolution, the conflict threatens to turn into a proxy war pitting Haftar’s backers against countries such as Qatar and Turkey that have supported Sarraj and allied militias in Misrata, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of Tripoli.

“Weapons and equipment have not stopped reaching Haftar, before and after the offensive,” Sarraj said. Asked about the possibility of a proxy war in the North African OPEC state, he replied, “Of course there are fears.”

Libya, which is split between his Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and the rival administration in the east that backs Haftar, is under a United Nations arms embargo, and Sarraj voiced frustration with the militia commander’s alleged advantage.

“The aggressor party has open channels to import weapons and equipment and all types of technology while the Government of National Accord cannot defend itself,” Sarraj said, referring to his own administration. “How do you expect the Government of National Accord to commit to this and not think of alternative options to defend itself?”

Sarraj did not say whether he and his allies were receiving support. The LNA accuses Turkey and Qatar of backing his forces.

Haftar’s offensive came as a complete surprise, the prime minister said. The two men had been preparing to meet in Libya on the week of the offensive ahead of a planned UN-sponsored conference on April 14. The campaign – which Haftar has cast as a fight against terrorist groups – began while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was visiting Tripoli.

Sarraj cast doubt that Haftar could be a partner for future talks, noting that the two had held an amiable conversation about negotiations just days before the offensive began. “He wants the whole cake,” he said.