Middle East

Libyan ambassador to UN backs rogue general

Members of the Libyan emergency services extinguish burning rubble on May 21, 2014 following an explosion at a carpet factory the previous evening in the Sallaheddin neighbourhood of the capital Tripoli. AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD TURKIA

TRIPOLI, Libya: Libya's ambassador to the United Nations Wednesday backed a renegade general's offensive against Islamist lawmakers and extremist militias, just hours after the country's air force commander made a similar move, further building support for a campaign the government has described as a coup.

Ibrahim al-Dabashi issued the announcement on Wednesday, saying Hifter's move was "not a coup ... but a nationalist move."

Al-Dabashi backed Hifter's demands for suspension of Libya's Islamist-led parliament and for transferring all powers to a caretaker government.

He said Libya should be purged of militias, on which the government has depended on to impose law and order, and hand all their weaponry, infrastructure and bases to the military.

Though al-Dabashi, who posted his announcement on his official Facebook page, offered a significant boost for Hifter, he also asked the general and his loyalists not to interfere in politics but restrict themselves to building cohesive military forces.

The ambassador's announcement came hours after Col. Gomaa al-Abbani, the chief commander of Libya's air force, backed Hifter in a televised address Tuesday night.

Al-Abbani pledged to make a "new Libya a vital player in combating terrorism and violence," while calling upon the people to support the military.

The U.N. ambassador and the air force chief add to a growing list of Hifter's backers.

But the show of support for the general appears to have triggered a heavy backlash.

Libya's navy chief Brig. Gen. Hassan Abu-Shanaq was wounded in an assassination attempt in the capital, Tripoli, early Wednesday, along with his driver and a guard, reported the official news agency LANA.

In further violence near the capital Wednesday, at least two people were killed when heavy fighting erupted, two days after gunmen stormed parliament in some of the city's worst violence since the 2011 war.

Residents reported several loud explosions near the al-Yarmouk barracks in the Salaheddin district. Gunfire and explosions later appeared to die down.

Heavy fighting involving anti-aircraft batteries also broke out near an army camp in Tajoura, an eastern suburb. "We're hearing really loud explosions and gunshots near the camp, but we don't know who is shooting," a Tajoura resident said.

It was unclear who was involved in the latest violence, which killed at least two people from Mali, a health ministry source said. Other parts of the capital appeared to be quiet

In the eastern city of Benghazi , gunmen killed a Chinese engineer on Tuesday after kidnapping him from his worksite and then dumping his body, according to a security source in the eastern city.

The engineer was one of three colleagues at a Chinese construction company who were all abducted from a worksite on Wednesday, according to China's official press agency, XinHua. He was later found shot and died in hospital, XinHua reported. His two colleagues were released.

Militants around Benghazi have targeted foreigners in the past, including an attack on the U.S. consulate in 2012 in which U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died.

Since Libya's 2011 war ended Moammar Gadhafi's one-man rule, the country's new institutions have struggled to gain popular backing and to make progress towards full democracy. But the central government has been unable to control the brigades and militias who helped to topple Gadhafi. They are now defying state authority to make their own demands.

Tripoli had been calmer in the past two days, after militiamen stormed the General National Congress (GNC), Libya's parliament, on Sunday and fought for six hours with other armed groups on the airport road. The militiamen claimed loyalty to former army general Khalifa Haftar.

On Friday, Haftar started what he called a military campaign against Islamist militants in Benghazi in the east. He also later claimed responsibility for the attack on parliament in Tripoli.

Several military units have joined him, threatening to split the nascent regular forces and network of different militia. The militia are rivals for influence and are loosely aligned on opposing sides with Islamist and anti-Islamist political forces.

Western governments are concerned Libya's instability may worsen and spill over into its North African neighbours, who are still emerging from the political unrest following the 2011 Arab Spring revolts.

In a parallel political battle over who controls the OPEC producer, Libya's government put more pressure on parliament to suspend work until parliamentary elections are held in June.

The cabinet has called on local councils across Libya to support a proposal that the GNC halt work until an upcoming national vote, according to a statement. It also wants to repeat the election of the prime minister.

The government sent the proposal to the GNC on Monday, in an effort to force lawmakers to hand over power. Many Libyans blame political infighting in parliament for the country's bumpy transition since the 2011 war.

"We urge all council leaders to study the initiative as soon as possible," the cabinet said in a statement released on Wednesday.

Businessman Ahmed Maiteeq was named as the new premier two weeks ago, in a chaotic vote disputed by many lawmakers. But he comes from Misrata, a western city with strong links to the Muslim Brothers - a no-go for fiercly anti-Islamist militias in eastern and western Libya.

Haftar and other militias have demanded that parliament step down. But Islamist-leaning brigades and the Muslim Brotherhood have called for militias to protect the government institutions.

The national election commission proposed late on Sunday holding parliamentary elections on June 25, an apparent attempt to ease growing tensions between the two camps.

Parliament is split between Islamists and more moderate forces, as well along tribal lines. It bowed to public pressure and said in February it would hold early elections.





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