Vella dubs maverick Libyan general ‘elephant in the room’

Foreign minister George Vella says UN-backed government led by Fayez al-Sarraj has not lived up to expectations as unconfirmed reports say general Khalifa Haftar receives Western support despite his opposition to Tripoli government

General Khalifa Haftar has refused to swear allegiance to the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli and his men are fighting against militias who are combatting the Islamic State
General Khalifa Haftar has refused to swear allegiance to the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli and his men are fighting against militias who are combatting the Islamic State

Foreign minister George Vella described as untrustworthy reports that British, French, US and Italian forces are coordinating air strikes in support of a renegade general in eastern Libya.

Air traffic control recordings obtained by the investigative online news portal Middle East Eye suggest Western forces have been coordinating air strikes in support of Khalifa Haftar.

Yet, while saying that these reports “cannot be confirmed,” Vella said that such operations would be secret if they were taking place. 

Although “it does not make much sense since this would defy the West’s declared support for the Serraj government,” Vella said stranger things have happened and he wouldn’t be surprised if Haftar was indeed receiving help.

“But from our end, we have no information about any Western powers using Maltese airspace. If they are, they are doing this without informing us,” Vella said. 

The leaked air traffic tapes appear to confirm earlier reports suggesting the existence of an international operations centre that is helping Haftar in his campaign to gain control of eastern Libya from groups he has declared to be “extremists.”

Conversations between Libyan pilots and the air traffic controllers at Benina airbase, one of Haftar’s vital military facilities in eastern Libya, can be heard in the leaked audio, in both Arabic and English. French, Italian, American and British accents are audible.

The leaks could prove damaging for the implicated Western powers because Haftar has so far refused to support the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli, which was installed earlier this year. 

Moreover, Haftar has been fighting some groups that have taken part in the Western-backed campaign against the Islamic State group, with the general, who holds US citizenship, insisting his forces are loyal to a rival government and parliament in Tobruk.

“Haftar is an enigma. He is the elephant in the room,” Vella said, adding that the maverick general has consistently refused to support peace initiatives.

Looking at the bigger picture, Vella told MaltaToday that the situation in Libya is convoluted and expressed disappointment at the failure of the UN-backed unity government to impose its authority.

After participating in the Libyan revolution in 2011, which saw Muammar Gaddafi deposed, Haftar faded into the background until February 2014, when he called on Libyans to rise up against the newly elected parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), which was controlled by Islamist factions.

Backed by Egypt and the UAE, he then waged war against al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia after the group took over Libya’s second city, Benghazi, and its surrounding towns and villages and the following year, in March 2015, Libya’s House of Representatives, which replaced the GNC, appointed him the commander of the Libyan National Army.

In the last two years, Haftar’s men have pushed armed groups out of Benghazi to as far as Derna, 250km to the city’s east, but his potential role in any future national military has been one of the biggest road blocks in attempts to achieve Libyan unity.

Haftar is reportedly unhappy with the line-up of unity government and is thought to be plotting to overthrow the fragile administration in Tripoli once the forces fighting the Islamic State are depleted.   

“This week I had a lengthy discussion with (UN envoy in Libya) Martin Kobbler and it is clear that Serraj is not living up to expectations and he is not delivering,” Vella said.

But he added the circumstances are hardly favourable, with the former internationally recognised parliament in Tobruk refusing to recognise the unity government and the failure to approve the new Constitution by Libya’s major players. 

In addition to this, Vella said, the situation in Sirte and Benghazi, where various forces are fighting against Islamic State fighters and other Islamist groups and the lax control of the southern border makes the country very difficult to govern. 

Vella refuses to describe the unity government as a puppet administration imposed by the west but he does recognise that the Tripoli government does not possess the necessary resources and infrastructure to function properly. 

“The Serraj government is a good starting point,” Vella said, however the conflicting interests inside and outside Libya make a peaceful resolution and the reconstruction of the war-torn country a “bleak prospect.”