Haftar moves into Derna, vows to free city of ‘terrorist’ militias
TUNIS - Weeks after returning from medical leave in Paris, Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive into the eastern city of Derna, promising to “liberate” the town from “terrorist” militias.
“Zero Hour for the liberation of Derna has struck,” Haftar said May 7 at a military parade in Benghazi. “Our army forces are now targeting their hideouts.”
Derna, a port city of 150,000, is the last major pocket of Islamist resistance to Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east. It has been under the jurisdiction of the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC), elements of which are linked to al-Qaeda, since 2014 when the Islamic State (ISIS) was driven out.
Air strikes were reported May 7 in south-eastern Derna and deadly clashes followed the next morning, Reuters reported. Haftar’s forces were said to have attacked from five directions, claiming key territory 15km east of the city.
There were reports of at least four casualties within the LNA’s ranks and one DMSC member died, DMSC spokesman Mohammed Idris Taher said.
“I gave strict instructions to my forces to protect civilians… and abide by international humanitarian law,” Haftar said.
The surprise incursion coincided with the fourth anniversary of the start of Operation Dignity, Haftar’s battle against Islamist militias in the east. He has since vowed to carry on the fight westward, where the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, is vying for control of the country in Tripoli.
“You have to trust your army because they will lead you to reach what you hope in a short period of time… a better life,” Haftar said during a broadcast April 26.
Haftar, in his mid 70s, was speaking on his return from a 2-week trip to Paris where he had been seeking medical treatment for an undisclosed condition. That trip prompted speculation about Haftar’s health. Some reports claimed he was in critical condition or dead.
During his April 26 address, however, Haftar appeared well and in good spirits. He said he was “in good health” and praised his forces for remaining “steadfast” and “resolute.”
“I won’t respond to those promoting rumours about my health and you are not responsible for them but there are those who will answer for them in the appropriate way,” Haftar said to military and tribal leaders gathered to greet him.
Days later, he paid a rare visit to troops on the outskirts of Derna, presumably in preparation for the assault. Clashes were first reported near southern Derna on May 3.
The announcement of a full-scale offensive into Derna, Haftar’s final roadblock to full control of the east, came after a year-long blockade on the Islamist stronghold, which the United Nations called for to end.
Haftar, looking to project a strong image after his return from abroad, has shown no signs of letting up. Khalifa al-Obeidi, head of the LNA’s media office, said in a news release that the LNA was “imposing a harsh blockade on the terrorist groups.”
While Haftar’s move into Derna carries symbolic weight, his real test could come from militias in the west, where any challenge would likely result in many casualties.