TRIPOLI: A rogue general, whose repeated deadly assaults on jihadists in Libya’s second city Benghazi have earned him threats of reprisal, escaped a suicide bombing Wednesday, military officials said.
Hours later gunmen killed a senior Swiss staffer of the Red Cross in the city of Sirte, underscoring the almost total lack of security in the North African state.
In Geneva, International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman Wolde Saugeron said one of its workers was “attacked by gunmen as he left a meeting with two colleagues” in Sirte at around noon.
“They were headed toward their car, which wasn’t marked with ICRC insignia” and the attackers shot at “point-blank” range. “Our organization condemns this murder.”
The man, who was not immediately named, headed the agency’s office in Misrata, some 200 kilometers from Sirte.
Meanwhile, Haftar said he had been briefly treated in hospital after suffering minor injuries in an assassination attempt.
“I am well,” he told Libya’s Al-Oula television station. “There will be a strong response.”
A suicide bomber earlier Wednesday blew up a jeep loaded with explosives near Haftar’s base outside Benghazi.
Three of his loyalists were killed in the attack on a villa outside the eastern city, a commander told AFP.
Benghazi was the cradle of the revolt that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 and has become a bastion of jihadists accused by Washington of involvement in a deadly assault on the U.S. consulate there in 2012.
“A suicide bomber in a vehicle packed with explosives attacked a villa where we had gathered,” said General Sagr al-Jerushi, who heads the air wing Haftar has used in his attacks on the jihadists.
“Three of our soldiers were killed,” Jerushi said, adding he himself had been “lightly wounded.”
It is the first attack on Haftar since he launched “Operation Dignity,” aimed at eradicating “terrorists” in Benghazi on May 16.
Ansar al-Shariah a radical Islamist group blacklisted by Washington as a “terrorist organization” for its alleged role in the consulate attack, has borne the brunt of the offensive and had threatened reprisals.
Al-Qaeda too has threatened the former general, who spent years in U.S. exile before returning to join the anti-Gadhafi rebellion.
Its North Africa affiliate – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – labeled him an “enemy of Islam” Sunday and urged Libyans to fight him.
Haftar spokesman Mohammad Hejazi said “we hold the terrorists responsible for this attack; this sort of suicide bombing is, of course, the work of terrorists and extremists.”
Haftar claims his forces represent the legitimate Libyan army and has won the support of regular army units inside Benghazi, including the special forces, for his offensive.
Their latest assault, Monday, left at least 21 dead and 112 wounded.
Even though Haftar denies any political ambitions, the outgoing Islamist-led parliament accuses him of plotting a coup and has branded him an outlaw.
Since 2011, Libya has been awash with heavy weapons and former rebel militias control swathes of territory across the country.
As a result, the central government has struggled to impose its authority.
Haftar’s campaign against the Islamists has struck a chord among the many Libyans angry at the militias, and there have been repeated street demonstrations in his support in Benghazi and Tripoli.
But he remains a figure of suspicion for many veterans of the uprising, with his U.S. exile leading some of them to accuse him of links to the CIA, something also claimed by Gadhafi regime.
Washington has denied any role in Haftar’s offensive in Benghazi.
In Tripoli, a rocket overnight hit the government’s head offices, where new Prime Minister Ahmad Maiteeq was to hold a Cabinet meeting, causing damage but no casualties, an official said.
Maiteeq was not in his office at the time.
Despite the attack, Maiteeq traveled to his offices Wednesday to hold a meeting with his ministers, an AFP journalist said.
State buildings are regularly targeted by rival militias.