Veteran commander vies for power in Libya’s shifting sands

After Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown and eventually killed, Khalifa Haftar, second right, dropped from view. He resurfaced in 2014. (Reuters)
Updated 27 February 2018
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Veteran commander vies for power in Libya’s shifting sands

TUNIS: When Khalifa Haftar flew to Tunis in September, the veteran commander and possible future leader of Libya brought masked troops armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers in a show of force that drew censure from UN experts.
In France, Italy and Tunisia, he also shook hands with ministers and presidents in gilded reception rooms, projecting a different image: That of a man preparing to convert the military gains of his Libyan National Army (LNA) into civilian power.
Haftar casts himself as the person who can bring stability to Libya after years of conflict, ridding the OPEC member of militants and reining in migrant smuggling to Europe.
Some of those who have worked with him describe him as a divisive military man with little time for politics, who could try to reinstate authoritarian rule and bring more violence to a country where armed groups jealously guard local fiefdoms.
A former ally of Muammar Qaddafi, Haftar, 75, returned to Libya seven years ago from the US, to join the Nato-backed revolution that ended four decades of Qaddafi’s rule.
After a protracted military campaign in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, he has promised to “liberate” the capital Tripoli, split from the east since 2014. Elections, which the UN says could be organized by the end of the year despite major obstacles, may provide another route to power.
Haftar seems to be hedging his bets. The LNA, he said last month, has “sleeper cells” it could activate to take full control of Libya while prioritising a political solution to avoid bloodshed.
“But our patience has limits,” he said in the interview published in French magazine Jeune Afrique, before adding that Libya was not “ripe for democracy.”
Mohamed Buisier, a US-based engineer who served as an adviser to Haftar from 2014-2016 before falling out with him, said Haftar wanted absolute power.
“He wants to get to one of the big palaces in Tripoli and rule Libya — that is it,” he said.
Haftar’s office said he did not immediately have time for an interview.
Among the officers who supported Qaddafi when he seized power from King Idris in 1969, Haftar was disowned by Qaddafi after he was captured leading Libyan forces in Chad in 1987.
He settled outside Washington, DC, in Virginia and returned to Libya only as the revolt against Qaddafi was gathering pace.
“He was there at the beginning with Qaddafi … he was abandoned by Qaddafi, he left Libya for decades. He would like to see the arc of history corrected,” said Jonathan Winer, a former US special envoy to Libya who met Haftar in 2016.
After Qaddafi was overthrown and eventually killed, Haftar dropped from view, resurfacing in February 2014 with a televised statement pledging to rescue a country mired in instability.
In May that year, he launched “Operation Dignity” in Benghazi, merging his irregular forces with army troops and pitting himself against both militants whom he blamed for a wave of bombings and assassinations in the port city, and an armed alliance that took control of Tripoli soon after.
An internationally recognized Parliament relocated to eastern Libya and appointed Haftar army chief in 2015, but it was not until early 2016, amid reports of support from foreign states, that Haftar started gaining the upper hand in his Benghazi campaign.
Haftar has rejected the UN-backed transitional Government of National Accord (GNA) set up in Tripoli in 2016 as fighting raged in Benghazi, dismissing it as unelected and beholden to the capital’s militias.


Kosovan women returned from Syria face house arrest

Updated 46 min 36 sec ago
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Kosovan women returned from Syria face house arrest

  • Four alleged militants, all men, were arrested the moment they were brought to the country
  • The state prosecution said all 32 repatriated women are under investigation

PRISTINA: Kosovo prosecutors have requested the house arrest of 16 women repatriated from Syria, saying they are suspected of joining or taking part as foreign fighters there.

The women appeared on Wednesday in court in Pristina, a day after 10 other women were put under house arrest. None have been charged with a crime.

Four alleged militants, all men, were arrested the moment they were brought to the country.

The women and children were sent to the Foreign Detention Centre in the outskirts of Pristina but were freed to go home after 72 hours.

Ten women were seen entering Pristina Basic Court in a police escort on Tuesday. The court said in a statement later that they had been placed under house arrest on charges of joining foreign armed groups and terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq from 2014 to 2019.

The state prosecution said all 32 repatriated women are under investigation and more of them are expected to appear in front of judges on Wednesday. The prosecution has yet to file charges.

After the collapse of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, countries around the world are wrestling with how to handle militants and their families seeking to return to their home countries.

Kosovo's population is nominally 90 percent Muslim, but the country is largely secular in outlook. More than 300 of its citizens travelled to Syria since 2012 and 70 men who fought alongside militant groups were killed.

Police said 30 Kosovan fighters, 49 women and eight children remain in the conflict zones. The government said it plans to bring back those who are still there.

International and local security agencies have previously warned of the risk posed by returning fighters. In 2015, Kosovo adopted a law making fighting in foreign conflicts punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

On Saturday, 110 Kosovar citizens — the four alleged foreign fighters, 32 women and 74 children — were returned to Kosovo with assistance from the United States, the first such move for a European country.

Authorities say there are still 87 Kosovar citizens in Syria.