CAIRO: Eastern Libyan forces commander Khalifa Haftar met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi for talks in Cairo on Monday amid mounting international pressure for a halt to the battle of Tripoli.
More than 120 people have been killed and nearly 600 wounded in fighting since Haftar launched an offensive on April 4 to take the Libyan capital.
Libya’s UN-backed government said it shot down a Haftar fighter jet south of the capital Tripoli on Sunday. Haftar’s forces confirmed the loss of a MiG-23 but attributed it to a technical failure.
Egypt has in the past urged all parties in Libya to exercise restraint and stop escalation. It has close ties with Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) controls the east and swept through the mainly desert south this year before moving on to Tripoli.
The Libyan commander has modelled his political style of authoritarian leadership after El-Sisi, himself an army general turned president.
After Sunday’s talks the Egyptian Foreign Ministry expressed deep concern about the fighting. It said Egypt supported UN efforts for a political solution as the only option to preserve Libya’s safety and territorial integrity, and protect its people.
A statement from El-Sisi’s office did not mention Haftar’s offensive directly but “confirmed Egypt’s support for efforts to combat terrorism and extremist groups and militias in order to achieve security and stability for the Libyan citizen.”
Dr. Ziad Aql, Libyan affairs expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Arab News Haftar’s ultimate goal was to become the leading force in Libya. “This can happen in a number of different ways, whether it be through elections, a negotiated solution that puts him at the head of a Libyan army free from civilian control, or through military victory,” he said.
“Egypt wants a diplomatic solution to avoid more bloodshed among the Arab people. Egypt supports a military solution only in confrontations against terrorism.”
Leading analyst Anas Al-Qassas said Sunday’s meeting was significant. “It could involve El-Sisi urging Haftar to stop the military campaign,” he said. “He may have brought a message from America, perhaps other things, but the situation is certainly inflamed and could lead to an explosion in Libya.”
Haftar’s campaign has disrupted efforts by the UN to bring rival eastern and western administrations to the negotiating table to plan an election and end the turmoil.
“Our position will not change,” UN envoy Ghassan Salame said. “You’ve learned and tasted war. No matter how obstinate one becomes, there is no solution except a political one.”
Haftar, who was exiled in the United States for two decades, returned to Libya in 2011 when the revolution erupted, commanding forces that eventually toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
The oil-rich north African country has been in turmoil ever since with successive weak governments in place and several Islamist militias battling for territorial control.