Last-ditch appeals are being made to persuade Khalifa Haftar to step back from the brink of an all-out attack on Tripoli, Libya’s capital, after the UN security council warned him to halt all military manoeuvres and said those threatening military solutions will face consequences.
It is the first time the international community has been so clear that Haftar is responsible for the aggression and follows a failed effort by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, to persuade Haftar to hold UN mediation talks in Geneva with Libya’s prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj.
Haftar announced on Wednesday he was launching an assault on Tripoli, and diplomats now fear that the crisis is escalating out of control.
There is a lingering hope that Haftar misunderstood messages from key explicit allies as giving him implicit blessing for his attack.
The EU, for instance, is making strenuous efforts to ensure that the US is seen to be telling Haftar to back off, and to tell his three principle external supporters – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – to do the same.
Haftar met King Salman of Saudi Arabia on 27 March in Riyadh.
It was also noted that Egypt did not put its name to a joint statement last week from the US, France, Italy, the UK and the UAE calling for restraint. Cairo has been one of Haftar’s strongest supporters.
Haftar’s troops are assembled in the area of Jufra, and it is thought forces from the coastal town of Misrata, loyal to the government of Sarraj, are willing to stage attacks on Haftar. Haftar, as the military leader in the east, may not have yet secured the level of militia support he expected inside Tripoli, but one source said alliances are shifting by the hour, with reports of violent incidents often exaggerated on social media.
Haftar has insisted, in talks with western diplomats, that he be allowed to take over as military leader at least until a new prime minister is elected, and seems unwilling to backtrack on his demands, despite a direct warning by EU ambassadors not to take decisive military steps.
One source said they feared Haftar either misread sometimes conflicting messages from his external allies or chose to misread them. “He is largely a military figure, and the quality of political advice that he is receiving from his immediate circle is not that sophisticated,” they said. “No one can understand why he thought it was good politics to launch an attack on Tripoli in the middle of a two-day visit to Libya by the secretary general.”
The chances of a UN-sponsored reconciliation conference going ahead as scheduled on 14 April now hangs in the balance, with forces in Misrata, including the Libyan interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, seen as a moderate, furious at what he regards as a betrayal by Haftar.
One source said France, viewed as the strongest European partner of Haftar, may be nervous that he is out of control, and suggested that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, will not want a transatlantic rift over support for an authoritarian leader in the middle of the European elections.Polish opposition kicks off election campaign with ‘Polexit’ warning