Libya general calls for council to take power

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Gen. Khalifa Hifter has been waiting decades for his moment.
A
top general under Moammar Gadhafi, he was tainted by a disastrous
defeat in a war against neighboring Chad. Exiled in the United States,
he helped lead the opposition and vowed to return one day. Since
Gadhafi’s 2011 ouster he has struggled for a role, distrusted by other
generals.
Now his time may have come. He is presenting himself as
Libya’s potential savior after nearly two years of chaos in which unruly
militias are exercising power over elected officials and assassinating
dozens of soldiers and police.
In less than a week since Hifter
surfaced, supporters flocked to his self-professed campaign to crush
Islamist militias and their backers in parliament and to bring stability
to the country.
But there are fears his ultimate goal is to make
himself into a new Gadhafi, and his democratic credentials are far from
established.
"If Hifter wants to put the country on the right path
then leave, he is welcome, but if he wants to take over power, we won’t
accept more coups," said prominent lawyer Abdullah Banoun in Tripoli.
"Gadhafi terrorized us for 42 years. The alternative to Gadhafi is a
civilian rule, nothing less than that."
Laying out a road map for
transitional period, Hifter called for the country’s top judicial
authorities to form a new presidential council to take over power until
holding new parliamentary elections. In a televised statement late
Wednesday Hifter appeared in a military uniform and surrounded by
military officers accused the current Islamist-dominated parliament of
turning Libya to a state "sponsoring terrorism" and a "hideout to
terrorists" who infiltrated the joints of the state, wasted its
resources and controlled its decision making. He asserted that the
military wants the "continuation of political life" and stressed that
the new council is a "civilian" one in an apparent attempt to defuse
fears of militarizing the state.
Since Friday, Hifter has been
leading an armed revolt in perhaps the biggest challenge yet to the
country’s weak central government and fledgling security forces. He says
his campaign, dubbed "Operation Dignity," aims to break the power of
Islamists who lead parliament. He accuses the Islamists of fueling
Libya’s chaos and opening the door to extremism.
On Sunday,
Hifter’s militia allies stormed and ransacked the parliament building in
Tripoli, declaring the body suspended. Two days later, some lawmakers
tried to hold a session at an alternative location to vote on a new
prime minister, but came under rocket fire, effectively ending the
session.
The turn of events from a Gadhafi dictatorship to a civil
war to persistent lawlessness has led to the prospect of another
military man steering Libya. It calls to mind neighboring Egypt, where a
revolution ousted longtime autocratic president Hosni Mubarak and paved
the way for free elections – only to have the military oust the
unpopular Islamist president and put the army chief in charge.
Hifter,
a 70-year-old military officer, helped Gadhafi in his 1969 coup against
the Libyan monarchy by taking control over Tripoli’s Matiga airbase,
according to his son. He then rose through the ranks of the Libyan army
until he was named the military chief, and led Libyan forces alongside
Egyptian forces in the 1973 Arab war against Israel.
But Libya’s disastrous defeat in its decade-long war in Chad did not help Hifter’s reputation.
"The
war was a scandal," Libyan historian Fathi al-Fadhali told The
Associated Press, noting that thousands of Libyan soldiers were killed,
wounded or captured. Hifter "is the worst military leader Libya has
known," he said. "He didn’t have a plan – even a withdrawal plan."
Hifter
was among those captured, and he defected from the Gadhafi regime in
1987 as the war ended. He then became the commander of the armed wing of
an opposition group, the Libyan National Salvation Front, and
orchestrated a couple of failed coup attempts against Gadhafi. He later
broke with the group.
In interviews with Arab media in the 1990s,
he described himself as building an armed force with U.S. assistance to
"eliminate" Gadhafi and his associates.
His nearly 20-year exile
in the United States raised questions about his alleged association with
the CIA. A 1996 Congressional Research Service report suggested that
the United States provided money and training to the National Salvation
Front.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. has had no recent contact with
Hifter.
"We
do not condone or support the actions on the ground, and nor have we
assisted with these actions," she told reporters Tuesday, urging
dialogue among Libya’s different factions. Psaki said no decision had
been made regarding U.S. personnel in Libya, an issue of utmost
sensitivity given the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost
in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Upon his return to Libya with the
beginning of the anti-Gadhafi uprising, Hifter served under the command
of Abdel-Fattah Younis, who was assassinated – allegedly by Islamist
extremists. After the war, Hifter disappeared from the public for most
of the last two years, but his name kept floating as a potential defense
minister.
Little is still known about the forces Hifter managed to harness in preparation for his offensive.
His
military campaign began Friday with bombings targeting Islamic militia
camps in Benghazi and an assault by allied militias on parliament in
Tripoli.
His spokesman, Col. Mohammed Hegazy, said Hifter’s forces
have carried out 11 airstrikes targeting mainly three neighborhoods
known to house Islamic militants on the outskirts of Benghazi, and
expected to take over the whole city.
Supporters have been
flocking to Hifter from all directions – including a host of
anti-Islamist politicians, the commander of the air force and Libya’s
Interior Ministry, which is employing militia fighters in the offensive.
Predictably, there’s been a strong backlash from rival militias.
Libya’s
navy chief Brig. Gen. Hassan Abu-Shanaq, some of whose units have
allied with Hifter, was wounded in an assassination attempt in Tripoli
early Wednesday. The night before, the air force headquarters in Tripoli
came under rocket attack.
In a further boost for Hifter, Libya’s U.N. envoy, Ambassador Ibrahim al-Dabashi, announced his support
Wednesday.
He
backed Hifter’s demands for the suspension of parliament and for the
transfer of all powers to a caretaker government, and he called for
Libya to be purged of militias. He urged Hifter and his loyalists not to
interfere in politics but to restrict themselves to building cohesive
military forces.
The general’s campaign is "not a coup," the ambassador said, "but a nationalist
move."
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Klapper reported from Washington.