Is US Behind 'Rogue' General's Libya Coup?
May 19, 2014
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Australia News Ltd.
On May 18, General Khalifa Hifter and his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army attacked Tripoli, seized parliament, and announced his intent to "purge" the nation of Islamists, starting with the parliamentarians. It's Hifter's second attempted coup this year. The US set up Hifter as a leader of the CIA-backed National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a rebel faction based in Chad. Gen. Hifter has bragged about his US backing in the past, though exactly where he stands with the US at present is unclear.
Is US Behind 'Rogue' General's Libya Coup?
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(May 18, 2014) -- On May 14, the US Marines announced the deployment of 200 marines to Sicily, in southern Italy, as a "crisis response" force for Libya. They did so at the behest of the US State Department, who at the time insisted there was no specific threat, nor any imminent plan to evacuate the embassy in Tripoli.
Just four days later, General Khalifa Hifter and his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army attacked Tripoli, took over parliament, and announced his intention to "purge" the nation of Islamists, starting with the parliamentarians themselves.
It's Gen. Hifter's second attempted coup this year, and seems to be going quite a bit better than the February fiasco, which began with statements announcing his takeover, and never really expanded much beyond that. The timing of the marine deployment suggests this latest move did not come as a major surprise to the administration, but Hifter's US connections may run much deeper.
Gen. Hifter got his start, and his generalship, as a close ally of Moammar Gadhafi, but changed sides when he was captured during the failed late 80′s invasion of Chad. Released at the behest of the US, after which he was set up as a military leader in the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), a rebel faction based out of Chad which was backed by the CIA.
The NFSL didn't last much longer in Chad, however, as a takeover of Chad by Gadhafi ally Idriss Deby led the US to evacuate the rebels. Hifter quietly relocated to the DC suburbs after that, and lived there through 2011, when he left to declare himself a rebel leader during the fight that ousted Gadhafi.
His post-revolution career has been perplexing, as Gen. Hifter has hung around in Libya, and often claimed to be a leader, if not the leader, in the Libyan military, but never seems to have been formally appointed to any post of serious power.
Eventually, the general got his army, or at least his self-styled army, forming the Libyan National Army, which has no official connection to Libya's actual army, but inexplicably has at times been able to muster attack helicopters and artillery in attacks on Islamist groups. The "army" has been fighting an on-again, off-again crusade against Islamist factions, with the government of former Prime Minister (and former NFSL leader) Ali Zeidan mostly looking the other way.
His attack on Benghazi on Friday seemed to change things considerably, and the new Libyan government was harshly critical of the operation, even sending the real military to the outskirts of the city to prevent either side from bringing more reinforcements to the battle.
Instead of being chastened by his lack of a government imprimatur, Hifter's forces marched straight for Tripoli, and by Sunday had taken over the airport and parliament. General Hifter has since castigated parliament as a den of Islamists.
Whether the coup lasts remains to be seen, but he hit parliament just hours after Prime Minister Ahmed Malteeq finally formed the first post-Zeidan government, after two months of infighting over cabinet positions,
Though a self-described independent, Prime Minister Malteeq was openly backed by several Islamist parties in the battle for premiership, which no doubt played a role in Gen. Hifter's objection to his government.
Gen. Hifter has bragged about his US backing in the past, though exactly where he stands with the US at present is as unclear as where he stands within Libya's military command. Anticipatory actions ahead of the coup, however, suggest that whatever prompted Hifter's attack, it was not a surprise in the US.
General Khalifa Hifter's Gunmen Take Over Libya's Parliament
AUSTRALIA (May 18, 2014) -- Forces apparently loyal to a renegade Libyan general said they suspended parliament after earlier leading a military assault against lawmakers, directly challenging the legitimacy of the country's weak central government three years after the overthrow of dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. A commander in the military police in Libya read a statement announcing the suspension on behalf of a group led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a one-time rebel commander who said the US backed his efforts to topple Gadhafi in the 1990s.
Hours earlier, militia members backed by truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, mortars and rocket fire attacked parliament, sending lawmakers fleeing for their lives as gunmen ransacked the legislature.
General Mokhtar Farnana, speaking on a Libyan television channel on behalf of Hifter's group, said it assigned a 60-member constituent's assembly to take over for parliament. Farnana said Libya's current government would act on an emergency basis, without elaborating.
On Sunday, gunmen targeted the Islamist lawmakers and officials Hifter blames for allowing extremists to hold the country ransom, his spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi told al-Ahrar.
"This parliament is what supports these extremist Islamist entities," al-Hegazi said. "The aim was to arrest these Islamist bodies who wear the cloak of politics."
The fighting spread to the capital's southern edge Sunday night and along the airport highway.
Libya's army and police rely heavily on the country's myriad of militias, the heavily armed groups formed around ethnic identity, hometowns and religion that formed out of the rebel factions that toppled Gadhafi. Bringing them under control has been one of the greatest challenges for Libya's successive interim governments, one they largely failed at as militias have seized oil terminals and even kidnapped a former prime minister seemingly at will.
In the fighting Sunday, officials believe members of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias, the largest in the capital, backed Hifter even though they operate under a government mandate.
Al-Qaaqaa posted a statement on its official Facebook page saying it attacked parliament with Sawaaq because lawmakers supported "terrorism."
The two groups previously gave parliament an ultimatum to dissolve after its mandate expired in February, threatening to detain lawmakers. They never carried out their threats but parliament eventually vowed to hold elections later this year.
Islamist-backed parliamentary head Nouri Abu Sahmein earlier told Libyan television station al-Nabaa that the militias loyal to the government had matters "under control," and vowed to convene parliament Tuesday.
An official with the Libyan Revolution Operation Room, an umbrella group of militias groups in charge of the security in the capital, said the gunmen "kidnapped" some 20 lawmakers and government officials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to brief journalists.
Lawmakers said security officials tried evacuate them before attackers breached the parliament, following warnings the building would be assaulted.
Libya's parliament is divided between Islamist and non-Islamist factions, with rival militias lining up behind them. Recently, Islamists backed the naming of a new prime minister amid walkouts from non-Islamists.
Libya's new interim prime minister has not yet named a Cabinet. However, lawmaker Khaled al-Mashri told al-Ahrar that attackers wanted to prevent lawmakers from picking a new Cabinet as a list of nominees reached legislators Sunday.
It's not clear which militias and political leaders support Hifter, but his offensive taps into a wider disenchantment among Libyans with its virtually powerless government. Backers include members of a federalist group that had declared an autonomous eastern government and seized the region's oil terminals and ports for months, demanding a bigger share of oil revenue.
Hamid al-Hassi, who was head of the army for the autonomous Barqa region, was a leading member of Hifter's Benghazi offensive Friday. He backed the assault on parliament Sunday, saying power should be handed over to a civilian authority if Libya's current interim government collapses.
On Saturday, Hifter appeared before journalists in his military uniform and promised he would press on with his Benghazi offensive, despite warnings by the central government that cooperating troops will be tried. They labelled his moves a coup attempt.
Hifter, a native of Benghazi, helped Gadhafi overthrow King Idris in 1969. He later served as his military chief of staff, but found himself captured by Chadian forces in the late 1980s.
Authorities in Chad later released him and Hifter joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the main Libyan opposition group at the time. Hifter later moved to Virginia and, in interviews with Arab media in the 1990s, described himself as building an armed force with U.S. assistance to "eliminate" Gadhafi and his associates.
He returned to Libya and briefly served as a commander of its fledging national army after Gadhafi's death. In February, he remerged in Libya via an online video in which he addressed the nation while wearing his military uniform and standing in front of the country's flag and a map, proclaiming he intended to "rescue" the nation.
Authorities described the video as a coup attempt, though he apparently was never arrested. Later, rumours circulated he visited military bases in eastern Libya to rally support before launching his Benghazi offensive Friday.
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