Libyans fear showdown as eastern commander eyes capital

A member of forces loyal to Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar stands guard near Libya's El Sharara oilfield in Obari,Libya, February 6, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 09 March 2019

Libyans fear showdown as eastern commander eyes capital

TUNIS: Forces from eastern Libya who have swept through the south and taken control of remaining oilfields in recent weeks have now reinforced a base in the centre of the country and signalled to the capital Tripoli that it may be next.
The United Nations, stunned by the southern advance, is scrambling to mediate between eastern commander Khalifa Haftar and Tripoli's internationally-recognised government led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, Western diplomats say.
They fear it may be the last UN attempt to unify the rival administrations and end the chaos that followed the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 with free elections.
Haftar, a 75-year-old former general, is increasingly taking the situation into his own hands, backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and the man to restore order.
He has not said whether he wants to march on Tripoli, which would dramatically escalate tensions. But his Libyan National Army (LNA) has hinted heavily that it might do so -- if Haftar is not recognised as the country's overall military commander, his aim since he began assembling the force in 2014.
"Some military sources say the LNA will move towards Tripoli after the announcement that the south has been secured," read an item on an LNA website.
"The same sources said there is coordination with some units inside Tripoli and its suburbs for the army to enter Tripoli."
The LNA spokesman said a purported order from Haftar for troops to move, seen by Reuters and publicised by his supporters, was not genuine.
But the capital has been rife with rumours of invasion and residents have reported seeing young people driving around playing loud songs praising Haftar from their car radios.
While several LNA units returned this month to Benghazi, Haftar's power base, some units went to Jufra, a city in the desert straddling east and west, LNA sources say.
From there they could go home, or -- the implied threat according to diplomats -- move northwest towards Tripoli, should talks over power sharing and elections fail.
Haftar taps into fatigue among Libyans yearning for electricity, petrol and banknotes scarce in a country which once enjoyed some of highest living standards in the region.
For many, especially in the east, the general is the only one who can end fighting by myriad groups with ever-changing names. For his enemies in western cities and Islamists who were oppressed under the old regime, he is a new Gaddafi.

OIL
Haftar took the southern El Sharara and El Feel oilfields last month, completing a campaign which has given him effective control of the country's crude output of around one million barrels a day.
He does not, as yet, have the means to profit from them because oil exports are managed by the state oil firm NOC in Tripoli, which is working with Serraj.
But the situation on the ground is changing fast.
U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame visited the main southern city Sabha just one day before some 80 LNA vehicles drove in through the desert from the east, and Haftar's growing clout was on show again this week.
The NOC agreed to reopen El Sharara, closed since rogue guards and tribesmen seized it in December, after the UAE called two meetings. The first was with Serraj and NOC chairman Mustafa Sanalla to agree on a security plan and the second was between the Tripoli premier and Haftar.
But while some communities in western Libya have signalled support for the LNA, it is far from clear whether Haftar would be able to muster enough.
The LNA says it has 85,000 men but this includes soldiers paid by the central government who it hopes to inherit. Its elite force, Saiqa (Lightning) numbers some 3,500, while Haftar's sons also have well-equipped troops, LNA sources say.
Diplomats say much of the LNA is an umbrella of less trained ex-Gaddafi soldiers, tribesmen and Salafists as well as Sudanese and Chadian fighters; the LNA denies this.
Thanks to covert UAE and Egyptian support documented by the U.N., Haftar has gradually built up superiority since 2014, allowing him to stop Tripoli flying in reinforcements during his southern campaign and pressure the NOC by closing airstrips on oilfields.
Serraj has no real troops -- depending on armed groups who control many of the buildings his ministers work in and who, Tripoli residents say, regularly demand business contracts.
His only asset is his official title and access to state funds, though Western powers have increasingly embraced Haftar - with Italy, for example, addressing him as (Field) Marshal, his official title.
There has been some Western support for Haftar. French special forces in conjunction with Britain and the United States had been advising the LNA during the Benghazi campaign.
On Monday, Serraj unexpectedly praised cooperation with Haftar, saying they needed to work together, in a speech to western mayors just after rumours of approaching LNA troops first surfaced.
Haftar and Serraj could agree to a new transitional government, which would help the commander steadily entrench his power without invading Tripoli.
But it is unclear whether Haftar's supporters would agree to putting him under civilian control as proposed by Western and UN mediators.
"There is no reconciliation with Serraj for power because talks are not with him but with people behind him who do not want Haftar," said Hamad Bandaq, a lawmaker in the eastern parliament.

OFFENSIVE
The biggest obstacle for Haftar is Misrata, a western city home to forces which could at least partly match LNA ground troops, analysts say.
The city is known for a spirit of resisting old regime figures, developed during 2011 when Gaddafi forces besieged it for three months.
Weeks after Haftar started his Benghazi campaign in 2014 Misrata forces moved on Tripoli, expelling a government allied to a Haftar partner in one-month battle that split Libya. The main motive was fear of a Haftar coup.
There have been belligerent comments from Misrata residents in recent days but it is unclear whether they would fight.
"A mix of conflict fatigue, cautiousness and internal divide has so far forestalled a military mobilisation," said Emad Badi, a Libya researcher. "However that could change very quickly."
Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow at the European Council, said Serraj and Haftar could agree on a transitional government, with the commander steadily entrenching his power without actually invading Tripoli.
Haftar and the UAE have put out feelers to Tripoli forces, and diplomats hope Haftar will agree to negotiate as he needs access to NOC cash after stretching his resources to the limit with his sweep of the south.
The LNA used massive force in the three-year battle over Benghazi but applied a different tactic in the south.
It launched air strikes and battled over one town. But it relied on a small ground force, with less than 200 vehicles, which offered jobs, petrol and banknotes to towns mostly happy to see someone replacing the largely absent state.
At El Sharara, just a few dozen LNA cars arrived, negotiated with the guards and quickly struck a deal, celebrated by a commander flown to shoot a video with his new men.


Man shot dead as Lebanese army disperse protesters

Updated 13 November 2019

Man shot dead as Lebanese army disperse protesters

  • The death is the second during the nationwide protests that have paralyzed the country

BEIRUT: A man was shot dead south of Beirut after the army opened fire to disperse protesters blocking roads, Lebanese state media said Wednesday, nearly a month into an unprecedented anti-graft street movement.
The victim “succumbed to his injuries” in hospital, the National News Agency said, the second death during the nationwide protests that have paralyzed the country.
The army said in a statement that it had arrested a soldier after he opened fire in the coastal town of Khalde, just below the capital, to clear protesters “injuring one person.”
Protesters have been demanding the ouster of a generation of politicians seen by demonstrators as inefficient and corrupt, in a movement that has been largely peaceful.
On Tuesday night, street protests erupted after President Michel Aoun defended the role of his allies, the Shiite movement Hezbollah, in Lebanon’s government.
Protesters responded by cutting off several major roads in and around Beirut, the northern city of Tripoli and the eastern region of Bekaa.
The Progressive Socialist Party, led by influential Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, said in a statement that the man shot dead was one its members.
A long-time opponent of President Michel Aoun, Jumblatt appealed to his supporters to stay calm.
“In spite of what happened, we have no other refuge than the state. If we lose hope in the state, we enter chaos,” he said.
The government stepped down on October 29 but stayed on in a caretaker capacity and no overt efforts have so far been made to form a new one, as an economic crisis brings the country to the brink of default.
On Tuesday morning, dozens of protesters had gathered near the law courts in central Beirut and tried to stop judges and lawyers from going to work, demanding an independent judiciary.
Employees at the two main mobile operators, Alfa and Touch, started a nationwide strike.
Many schools and universities were closed, as were banks after their employees called for a general strike over alleged mistreatment by customers last week.

Opinion

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The UN’s special coordinator for the country, Jan Kubis, urged Lebanon to accelerate the formation of a new government that would be able “to appeal for support from Lebanon’s international partners.”
“The financial and economic situation is critical, and the government and other authorities cannot wait any longer to start addressing it,” he said.
The leaderless protest movement first erupted after a proposed tax on calls via free phone apps, but it has since morphed into an unprecedented cross-sectarian outcry against everything from perceived state corruption to rampant electricity cuts.
Demonstrators say they are fed up with the same families dominating government institutions since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
In his televised address on Tuesday, Aoun proposed a government that includes both technocrats and politicians.
“A technocratic government can’t set the policies of the country” and would not “represent the people,” he said in the interview on Lebanese television.
Asked if he was facing pressure from outside Lebanon not to include the Iran-backed Hezbollah in a new government, he did not deny it.
But, he said, “they can’t force me to get rid of a party that represents at least a third of Lebanese,” referring to the weight of the Shiite community.
The latest crisis in Lebanon comes at a time of high tensions between Iran and the United States, which has sanctioned Hezbollah members in Lebanon.
Forming a government typically takes months in Lebanon, with protracted debate on how best to maintain a fragile balance between religious communities.
The World Bank says around a third of Lebanese live in poverty and has warned the country’s struggling economy could further deteriorate if a new cabinet is not formed rapidly.