Last updated: 18 October, 2014

Libya PM says united forces aim to retake capital

Libya's internationally-recognised prime minister said Saturday that military forces in the strife-torn country had united to try to recapture Tripoli and the second city Benghazi from Islamist militias.

Libya’s internationally-recognised prime minister said Saturday that military forces in the strife-torn country had united to try to recapture Tripoli and the second city Benghazi from Islamist militias.

Abdullah al-Thani also expressed his frustration over a lack of support from the international community, calling for foreign weapons and assistance in the fight against the Islamists.

“All military forces have been placed under army command to liberate Tripoli and Benghazi soon, inshallah (God willing),” Thani told AFP in a telephone interview from the eastern town of Al-Baida.

Since a 2011 revolution which toppled Libya’s longtime leader Moamer Kadhafi, interim authorities have failed to establish a regular army and had to rely on state-backed militias.

Former rebels who fought against Kadhafi have formed powerful militias and seized control of large parts of turmoil-gripped Libya over the past three years.

On Wednesday, retired general Khalifa Haftar launched an operation against Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi with the backing of army units and civilians who have taken up arms.

The operation is “under the control of the regular army and the control of the government and the parliament,” said Thani.

An AFP count based on hospital sources in the city put the death toll in Benghazi at 66 since Haftar’s offensive began, including eight killed on Saturday and four who died in a suicide attack the previous day.

Haftar launched a first, unsuccessful campaign against Islamists in the city back in May but failed to muster support from the authorities who accused the Kadhafi-era general of trying to mount a coup.

Before this week’s assault, Haftar’s forces had been steadily beaten back to a final redoubt at Benghazi’s airport, which has come under attack by Islamists since mid-September.

Thani’s government and parliament, elected on June 25, have taken refuge in the country’s east to escape Fajr Libya, a mainly Islamist coalition which seized control of Tripoli at the end of August.

The fall of the capital followed a weeks-long battle with pro-government militias from the town of Zintan in western Libya.

Thani said the Zintan forces had also been placed under army command and joined regular units which aim to recapture the capital.

“All the forces have been placed under the command of the army to liberate Tripoli,” Thani said.

He branded Fajr Libya as “outlaws” who had set up an “illegitimate” parallel government and alleged the group was the armed wing of movements such the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions.

– Western arms needed –

Unlike its predecessor, Libya’s new parliament is dominated by anti-Islamist lawmakers.

Nevertheless, Thani said Islamists “are welcome to join us to build a democratic state as long as they accept the choices of the Libyan people.”

After seizing Tripoli, Fajr Libya extended its operations to the western Warshefana region which supports Zintan fighters, charging that diehard Kadhafi loyalists were holed up in the town.

The Zintanis last week launched a counter-offensive on several fronts in western Libya, including attacks on the towns of Kekla and Al-Kalaa which support Fajr Libya, triggering deadly clashes.

The United Nations called for a four-day ceasefire in the area beginning Saturday “to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance”, its Libya mission said in a statement.

Thani said the conflict in western Libya was political, unlike violence in Benghazi where authorities are fighting “terrorist groups”.

He also voiced frustration about a lack of international assistance to fight the Islamists.

“Do they want us to fight terrorism with sticks and stones? We are not asking for forces on the ground but for logistical support and arms,” he said.

The key jihadist group on the ground in Benghazi is Ansar al-Sharia, classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States.

“Ansar al-Sharia wants to transform Benghazi into an Islamic state,” said Thani.

On Friday, US ambassador Deborah Jones tweeted that it was up to Libya to confront its Islamist insurgency.

“We condemn Ansar al-Sharia’s ongoing attacks against the Libyan people,” Jones posted on Twitter.

“Confronting terrorist orgs is necessary + should be done by regular armed forces under control of accountable, democratic central authority,” another of her tweets said.

Libya has been struggling to obtain weapons and ammunition due to UN sanctions imposed at the start of the 2011 revolt which are still in effect.