The former general who is leading an armed uprising in Libya proposed Wednesday that an emergency government be named to resolve what may be the country's most serious political crisis since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Khalifa Hifter made the appeal at a news conference in the eastern city of Benghazi, appearing with several former military leaders who have joined his revolt. He has steadily picked up support in recent days from current and former military officers and the militias that dominate many cities.
Hifter has characterised his campaign as an assault on terrorism. He has demanded that Libya's Islamist-led parliament, known as the General National Council, be disbanded. On Wednesday, he called on the country's Higher Judicial Council to name an emergency civilian government that would hand over power to parliament after new elections for that body scheduled for 25 June.
But his opponents showed no sign of giving in. Ahmed Matiq, named prime minister two weeks ago in a disputed vote, said Wednesday that he will not quit his post. He comes from Misurata, a western city that is home to powerful militias aligned with Islamists in parliament.
Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry issued a statement calling for the arrest of any soldiers who join Hifter's campaign.
The sharpening confrontation threatens to turn into all-out war. More than 70 people died in an assault Friday by Hifter's forces on Islamist militias in Benghazi, an action that sparked the heaviest fighting in the country since the civil war three years ago.
Two days later, forces loyal to Hifter stormed parliament as it was planning a vote on Matiq's cabinet, which would confirm him as prime minister.
Hifter, a former military officer, turned against Gadhafi in the 1980s and later went into exile in Northern Virginia. Hifter said Wednesday that he was making the new proposal after he urged the Supreme Court and a 60-member constitution-writing committee to assume power from the parliament. Both declined.
Matiq said at a news conference Wednesday that he wouldn't step aside. Libyans "don't want to return to having a military body rule them," he said, presumably referring to Hifter.
A leader of one of the most powerful Islamist militias in Benghazi warned the ex-general not to try to take over the city. "If he ever thinks of coming into Benghazi, it will be his grave, like it was Gadhafi's grave," said Ismail Salabi, a leader of the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade. He also echoed a common criticism by Hifter's opponents — that he is trying to carry out a coup. "If he is looking for power he should remove his military uniform and go into politics," he said.
On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, said at the Stimson Center in Washington: Hiftar "has not declared that he wants to be in charge of the state. What he has declared is that he wants the GNC to step aside, because the GNC has thus far failed to take any action to respond to the unhappiness of many Libyans." She was referring to the parliament.
Salabi, the militia leader, denied that his group was responsible for a string of assassinations in Benghazi in the past two years targeting former military and security personnel, prosecutors, judges and local leaders. Islamist militias have been widely blamed for the deaths. On Tuesday, a Chinese engineer was found dead in the city hours after he was abducted, a local TV channel reported.
Calls are growing for protests Friday in Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities in support of Hifter's "Operation Dignity."The Facebook page of a prominent Tripoli activist, Abdelmoaz Banoun, who first called for the protest, says its goal is to "regain the prestige of the state and the stolen dignity of the nation."Meanwhile, the largest political bloc in parliament, the National Forces Alliance, announced its support for Hifter. Ahmed Rakha, a member of the group, said Hifter's offensive has already yielded results. "The militias that kill soldiers and police in Benghazi started backing off after Operation Dignity began," he said. On Tuesday night, the chief commander of Libya's air force said he was also throwing his weight behind Hifter's "Operation Dignity."He did not mention Hifter by name Shortly after his address, explosions and fighting erupted in Tripoli, killing at least two people.
Libya's acting interior minister denied his ministry was throwing its weight behind Hifter's offensive. In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the ministry had called its forces to join "Operation Dignity." But in an interview on the Libyan TV channel Al-Nabaa, minister Salah Mazeg said the department's only goal was "the peace and safety of the Libyan people."
Sharif Abdel Kouddous – The Washington Post
Image: Mahmud Turkia / AFP Photo / Lehtikuva