Anti-Islamist general named Libya army chief

A file picture taken on May 17 last year shows then retired Libyan Army general Khalifa Haftar speaking during a press conference in the town of Abyar, 70 km southwest of Benghazi. -- PHOTO: AFP 
A file picture taken on May 17 last year shows then retired Libyan Army general Khalifa Haftar speaking during a press conference in the town of Abyar, 70 km southwest of Benghazi. -- PHOTO: AFP 

BENGHAZI, Libya (AFP) - 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, said.

Libya has been awash with weapons since the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi, 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.

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 Gaddafi's overthrow, there have been growing fears in Libya and beyond about efforts by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) extremists to establish a stronghold in the country.

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 was trying to persuade rival factions to resume talks on a political solution to the crisis.

Lawmakers said Leon travelled to Tripoli to meet representatives of the General National Congress, the parallel parliament backed by Fajr Libya, and then went to the eastern city of Tobruk to meet the rival legislature.

Last week the Tobruk-based parliament decided to suspend its participation in the UN-brokered talks, over what it said was Western pressure to include Islamists in a future government.

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 Feb 11, Leon met separately with officials from both sides in southern Libya and reported that the indirect talks were "positive and constructive".

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