A once-retired general leading a sweeping offensive against Islamists has been named Libyan army chief, an official said Monday, in a move expected to deepen divisions in the conflict-riven country.
“I’ve chosen Major General Khalifa Belgacem Haftar for the post of commander-in-chief of the army after promoting him to the rank of lieutenant general,” Aguila Salah, the speaker of the internationally recognised parliament, told AFP.
Libya has been awash with weapons since the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi, and opposing militias have since been battling for control of its cities and oil wealth.
It has two rival governments and parliaments, those recognised by the international community sitting in the far east of the country and the others with ties to Islamists in the capital, Tripoli.
The internationally backed legislature created the post of army chief under a new law passed last week.
A member of parliament said at the time that the law was adopted to “legitimise” Haftar, who calls himself chief of the Libyan National Army.
Army spokesman Colonel Ahmed al-Mesmari said Haftar would be sworn in on Tuesday before the assembly.
His appointment threatens to derail efforts by UN envoy Bernardino Leon to relaunch a political dialogue in Libya, which has rival governments and parliaments and is flush with armed militias.
Retired Libyan Army General Khalifa Haftar speaking during a press conference in the town of Abyar, 70 km southwest of Bengahzi, on May 17, 2014
On Monday night, however, the internationally recognised parliament voted to return to the UN-brokered talks a week after suspending its participation, a lawmaker told AFP.
Last May, Haftar launched an offensive against Islamists in the country’s east, prompting the then-government to accuse him of trying to stage a coup.
But after Islamists-led militias seized Tripoli, following disputed elections in June, the internationally recognised authorities have gradually allied themselves with him.
Last month, they formally requested that he and 129 other retired officers return to active service.
In addition to the insecurity since Kadhafi’s overthrow, there have been growing fears in Libya and beyond about efforts by the Islamic State jihadist group to establish a stronghold in the country.
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AFP / Abdullah Doma
A Libyan soldier loyal to General Khalifa Haftar rests on a sidewalk in the eastern city of Benghazi, on February 28, 2015
The international community faces a daunting task to find a political solution to the lawless nation’s political and military crisis.
Fajr Libya, a coalition of militias that seized Tripoli and which backs a rival government based in the capital, has rejected any political settlement that includes Haftar.
And Haftar has branded the Fajr Libya coalition — which includes moderate militias considered as the armed wing of the Libya branch of the Muslim Brotherhood — as “terrorist” groups.
Haftar’s convictions are not shared by many, with analysts saying that Fajr Libya has a role to play in UN-brokered talks just as much as the general.
Western countries also do not share Haftar’s views and believe “he is putting moderate Islamists and extremist ones in the same bag,” a Western diplomat said.
On Monday UN envoy Leon shuttled between the rival parliaments to persuade them to resume talks on a political solution to the crisis.
Lawmakers said Leon met representatives of the General National Congress, the parallel parliament backed by Fajr Libya, in Tripoli and with the legislature based in the eastern city of Tobruk.
After meeting with Leon, the Tobruk-based parliament voted to return to the talks, said lawmaker Abu Bakr Beira.
Last week the elected parliament had decided to suspend its participation in the UN-brokered talks over what is said was Western pressure to include Islamists in a future government.
AFP / Abdullah Doma
A Libyan soldier, loyal to Libya’s internationally recognised government of Abdullah al-Thani and General Khalifa Haftar, monitors a street from his sniper nest in the eastern coastal city of Benghazi on February 28, 2015
The suspension came days after 40 people were killed in suicide car bombings in the eastern town of Al-Qoba claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.
Since launching efforts at dialogue in September, Leon has been unable to bring together leading players from the rival camps.
The United Nations had invited the two parliaments to the new round of talks on Thursday in Morocco but the meeting has been postponed.
On February 11, Leon met separately with officials from both sides in southern Libya and reported that the indirect talks were “positive and constructive”.