By Ahmed Elumami
TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Libya’s internationally recognized government denounced its foe Khalifa Haftar as an “aspiring military dictator” on Friday and urged U.S. President Donald Trump to stop foreign support for his month-long offensive on the capital Tripoli.
Fayez Serraj, prime minister of the beleaguered Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), said Haftar’s U.S.-allied backers were turning Libya into a proxy battleground, risking a war with global implications and further mass migration to Europe.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which is allied to a rival administration in eastern Libya, mounted an offensive on Tripoli in early April, saying the GNA was controlled by what it called terrorists, but has failed to breach the city’s defenses.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Serraj said hundreds of Libyans had been killed, more than 40,000 had been forced to leave their homes, and “hundreds of thousands” could flee for Europe”.
“The GNA is fighting an aspiring military dictator — Khalifa Haftar — whose rival government is taking money and arms from foreign actors pursuing narrow self-interest at Libya’s expense,” Serraj wrote.
“To prevent a bloody civil war with global implications, Libya needs the U.S. to help stop other countries from meddling in our affairs,” Serraj said.
“I remain hopeful that President Trump will succeed where previous presidents have failed…Libyans won’t accept another Gadhafi-style military dictatorship.”
Serraj made his appeal a day after the GNA asked 40 foreign firms including France’s Total TOTF.PA to renew their licenses or have their operations suspended, a move that placed economic pressure on Europe to stop Haftar’s offensive.
While Serraj’s Tripoli forces have the backing of the United Nations, Haftar has the support of U.S. allies Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which have helped train his soldiers.
France has supported Haftar as a way to fight militants in a country in chaos since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The GNA denies Haftar’s accusations of ties to terrorism and says that it was its allies, not Haftar, who drove Islamic State from the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte in 2016.How closely Washington will listen to Serraj is not clear.
Signaling understanding for Haftar’s offensive, Trump in April spoke by phone to the eastern commander and discussed “ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya,” according to the White House.
The statement said Trump “recognized Field Marshall Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”
The United Nations has failed to broker a ceasefire after the offensive took it by surprise. Its special envoy Ghassan Salame has mostly stayed on the ground but his mission has reduced staffing levels, U.N. officials say.
European countries including Italy and France have taken a strong interest in Libya, both because of its natural resources and because of its status as a leading departure point for migrants attempting to enter Europe across the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile on the ground, the frontlines around Tripoli have changed little in the past week and fighting has dropped off since the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadam.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Angus MacSwan)