Tripoli issues surprise arrest warrant for Belhaj
TUNIS - The Libyan Attorney General’s Office in Tripoli dropped a political bombshell, issuing arrest warrants for one of Libya’s top post-2011 actors and other key figures in the Libya crisis.
A total of 31 Chadian and Sudanese militants in Libya were also charged. All are accused of involvement in attacks on oil terminals and on the airbase at Tamanhent, near Sabha in southern Libya.
Abdelhakim Belhaj, the most prominent figure named on the warrants, leads Libya’s pro-Islamist Watan Party. A former fighter in Afghanistan against the Soviets and later the leader of Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was allied to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, he became head of Tripoli Military Council after the 2011 revolution.
Since then he has branched out into business, allegedly with the help of Qatar, although he is still seen as primarily a controversial political figure. He has been said to be involved with Tunisia’s terrorist Ansar al-Sharia organisation, an accusation he denied.
In June 2017, Belhaj was included on a list of suspected terrorists linked to Qatar issued by Bahrain, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and subsequently endorsed by the House of Representatives, Libya’s parliament in Tobruk.
Last May, British Prime Minister Theresa May issued an unprecedented apology in the British parliament over British intelligence’s involvement in Belhaj’s capture and rendition to Libya in 2004 and subsequent torture by the Qaddafi regime. The United Kingdom paid him and his wife more than $600,000 as compensation.
Arrest warrants were also issued for leading Islamist militia commander in Zawia, west of Tripoli, Shaaban Masoud Hadia, also known as Abu Obaida al-Zawi, and Ibrahim Jadhran, who was responsible for shutting down Libya’s oil terminals from 2013-16.
Since then, Jadhran has tried repeatedly to recapture the terminals in alliance with members of the quasi-Islamist Benghazi Defence Brigades. There had been repeated calls on the attorney general by the National Oil Corporation to take legal action against Jadhran and others involved in attacking the oil terminals.
Belhaj denied accusations levelled against him, which centre on allegations that Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries were paid to create chaos in Libya.
It is not known what the consequences of the arrest warrant will be but Belhaj, who is in Turkey, has supporters in Tripoli and there are fears there may be violence as a result. He was quoted by the pro-Islamist Nabaa TV saying that it was unlikely the arrest warrants will be implemented in Tripoli.
The move to arrest people widely seen as beyond the law follows a week of no less startling events.
On January 1, Libyan National Army (LNA) forces freed 22 hostages who had been seized weeks earlier by suspected Islamic State (ISIS) gunmen. They were discovered after an attack December 27 on a military camp at Traghen, 125km from Sabha.
Following the assault, in which one soldier was killed, several others injured and 24 army vehicles reportedly stolen, LNA units tracked the attackers, said to be Chadian irregulars.
Chadian and Sudanese fighters have been active in southern Libya in recent years, hiring themselves out to the highest bidder or sometimes kidnapping local Libyans for ransom. The majority are Chadian, some being members of the Chadian opposition movement the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (CCMSR). Others are freelance bandits, with no political attachment.
Following the Traghen attack, LNA forces went to Ghudwa, believed to be the base for the bandits. The attackers were not there but hostages were found in two containers. The hostages were said to have been taken October 28 by ISIS during a particularly brutal attack on the southern village of Fugha and others captured during an attack November 23 on the police station in southern town of Tazerbo.
Authorities are now questioning whether ISIS was involved in the attacks or whether there are links between the Chadians and ISIS. So far there are no answers, although, in a potentially significant twist, the Attorney General’s Office announced that a leading CCMSR member had been arrested in Tripoli
The issue is further confused by the claim from the Tripoli government’s interior minister that the three suicide attackers on the Foreign Ministry on December 25 were “dark-skinned.”
The claim resulted in accusations of racism and suggestions that the minister was trying to insinuate that foreigners, not Libyans, were responsible for the attack. The ministry issued a statement that it did not discriminate on any grounds but it was pointed out that, following the suicide attack on the National Oil Corporation headquarters in Tripoli on September 10, there was a similar claim about “dark-skinned” attackers. Whether Chadians linked to ISIS were involved in the two attacks is at issue.