Wariness grows about role of militants in fighting over Tripoli
TUNIS - With the offensive by the Libyan National Army into its second month, the battle for Tripoli remains bogged down. Increased use of air power by both sides has had little consequence on the ground.
There was a major battle May 2 for Esbeia, south of Tripoli’s destroyed international airport, in which an estimated 70 fighters loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj were reported killed.
The Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, appears to have retained control of the strategically important town on the road to the LNA bastion of Tarhouna.
There were reports of the LNA sending reinforcements to Gharyan, 80km south of Tripoli — again strategically important, controlling the main route from the south to the capital. However, the lines remain the same.
Observers inside and outside Libya said there are fears that the fighting could empower militants to gain control of the city.
There have been militants travelling, mainly from Turkey, to join the fight, including Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade commanders who had been ordered out of the country by the brigade’s leader Haithem Tajouri.
Joining the fray on the side of the UN-backed Presidential Council have been groups such as the Benghazi Defence Brigades — many of its fighters having been in al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Al-Sharia movement, designated by the United States and the United Kingdom as a terrorist organisation — and the militia run by Misratan radical Salah Badi. Until the LNA began its offensive, he was a foe of the Presidential Council.
Also taking part in the GNA’s defence are prominent militants such as Murad Shetaw, Bashir Khalfallah and UN-sanctioned Abdulrahman al-Milad.
Nicknamed “Bija” and head of the Coast Guard in Zawia, 40km west of Tripoli, Milad is accused of collaboration with human traffickers and brutality against migrants. Like Badi, Khalfallah — known as “Bugra” (“The Cow”) — had been a bitter opponent of the Presidential Council and the GNA. In the last year and a half, he has attacked Tripoli’s Mitiga airport three times trying to free Islamist prisoners held there.
The militants’ position towards the Presidential Council was made clear by Misrata’s Mohamed Bayou, who was quoted as saying: “We do not trust them but today we are in the same trench.”
Known as “Shere Khan” after “The Jungle Book“ tiger, Bayou was killed in fighting in southern Tripoli in late April, a few days after his brother was killed. His leaderless forces have reportedly returned to Misrata but it has had little effect on the battle on the ground
The prospect of fighting running into months on end and fears about the empowerment of militants in Tripoli appears to be having effects outside the country, making key international supporters of the LNA, notably Russia and France, think about the way ahead.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, in an April 29 phone conversation with GNA Foreign Minister Mohamed Siala, said there had to be a political solution to the crisis, as proposed by UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame.
The following day, Moscow reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed on the need for a ceasefire and the restart of Salame’s political process.
In an interview with Le Figaro published May 2, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, while appearing to defend France’s support of Haftar, referred to Haftar’s “imprudence” in attacking Tripoli, agreed that it had not worked and said Paris was making efforts to ensure a ceasefire and relaunch of a political solution through Salame.
He also stressed the fears about extremists backing the GNA.
Among those supporting the GNA, he said, were “certain groups” linked to political Islam that maintained links with jihadist groups. There were also “mafia gangs of smugglers who torture and enslave migrants.” They were not fighting for Sarraj “but for the protection of their criminal activities,” he insisted.
There was also distinct criticism of Libyan Interior Minister and Interim Minister of Defence Fathi Bashagha and Turkey, which strongly supports Sarraj, and the GNA. This may open a war of words between Paris and Ankara.
Bashagha, Le Drian said, had criticised France for its supposed interference in the Libyan crisis but he noted that Bashagha “does not hesitate spending time in Turkey,” so he did not know who was really interfering.
US President Donald Trump’s move to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group confirms his stand against pro-Sarraj allies in Tripoli. Quoting US officials, Bloomberg News reported that Trump had indicated in an April 15 phone call with Haftar that the United States “supported an assault on the country’s capital to depose its UN-backed government.”