Politics

Libyan strongman stages new coup attempt, buoyed by Moscow mercenaries

Caravanserai and AFP

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Members of a military battalion loyal to Libyan General Khalifa Haftar are shown in Benghazi last December. [Abdullah Doma/AFP]

Libya's UN-recognised government on Tuesday (April 28th) accused rival military strongman Khalifa Haftar, emboldened by military support from Moscow, of seeking to stage a new coup after he claimed to have a "popular mandate" to govern the country.

Accused by critics of wanting to install a new military dictatorship, Haftar, who controls swathes of eastern and southern Libya, announced his self-styled "army" was "proud to be mandated with the historic task" of leading Libya.

Analysts said his move was a sign he wanted to consolidate his power after a series of setbacks earlier this month, when Government of National Accord (GNA) forces captured a string of strategic towns west of Tripoli.

The oil-rich North African nation has been gripped by chaos since the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, with rival administrations in the east and west vying for power.

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Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) shakes hands with Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Moscow during talks in 2017. [Russian Ministry of Defence]

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Yevgeny Prigozhin (centre) shares a few words with Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (right) in this undated photo. Prigozhin is widely recognised as the owner of the Wagner Group, Putin's shadowy mercenary army operating in conflict zones in various parts of the world. [File]

Haftar claims legitimacy from an eastern-based parliament elected in 2014, but the body has not said whether it supported his move.

He did not offer specifics on how he had received his "mandate" or from which institution.

Nor did he say whether the parliament, which was forced to move its headquarters after violence ripped apart Tripoli six years ago, would be dissolved.

Haftar announced the end of the Skhirat Agreement, a 2015 UN-mediated deal signed in Morocco that produced the Tripoli-based unity government.

Putin mercenaries move in

The coup attempt by Haftar comes as Moscow seeks to buoy the strongman with increased military support that includes sending impoverished Syrian youth to fight and prop up his forces in Libya.

The Wagner Group -- a group of mercenaries who work at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin -- is co-ordinating a massive recruitment effort of Syrian youths to fight as mercenaries in Libya, a number of Arab media outlets have reported.

Under an organisation called "Russia's Friends", personnel affiliated with Russian and Syrian intelligence agencies are transferring these youths to fight for Haftar by enticing them with large monetary rewards, according to a report by Al-Sharq al-Awsat.

Members of "Russia's Friends" have received military identification cards from Russia's Khmeimim military base in Syria, the report said.

At the same time, Russian aircraft are transferring members of the Wagner Group and military equipment from the Khmeimim base to Benghazi, Libya, a number of observers have reported.

In addition, the GNA is concerned that the influx of Syrian mercenaries in Libya may contribute to the spread of the coronavirus in the country as they arrive on Russian-arranged flights from Syria and are neither tested, nor quarantined.

These fighters have been in direct contact with members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who also have been passengers on these flights from Syria, according to Libya's Interior Ministry.

Iran is one of the countries hardest hit by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

With control over certain areas constantly changing hands, the Syrian mercenaries are moving from place to place and mixing with Libyan combatants and civilians, potentially heightening the risk of infection and increasing the likelihood that the virus will be transmitted to communities in Libya.

'Rising desperation'

In a pre-dawn statement, the GNA in Tripoli denounced Haftar's announcement as "a farce and the latest in a long series of coups d'etat".

Haftar previously announced the end of the Skhirat Agreement in 2017 and three years earlier also said on television that he was taking power in Libya.

The UN, which mediated the deal, voiced concern April 28th over Haftar's move.

"For us the [Skhirat] agreement, the institutions that come out of this agreement, remain the sole internationally recognised framework of government in Libya," said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

Pro-Haftar forces have been battling to seize Tripoli since April 2019, but their offensive stalled on the edge of the capital.

Earlier this month, GNA forces ousted them from two key coastal cities west of Tripoli.

Backed by Turkey, GNA troops are now encircling Haftar's main rear base at Tarhunah, 60 kilometres south-east of the capital.

The GNA claimed Haftar's latest announcement was an attempt to "conceal the defeat of his militias and mercenaries" and "the failure of his dictatorial project".

His move "to formalise his direct control of eastern Libya is a sign of his rising desperation in the face of GNA successes in western Libya", said Hamish Kinnear, an analyst at the Verisk Maplecroft consultancy.

"By sweeping aside the authority of the [parliament] and electing himself as undisputed leader in the east, Haftar is making himself central to any negotiated solution," Kinnear said.

Washington on April 28th called for dialogue between the two sides and a "humanitarian" truce.

"The US regrets... Haftar's suggestion that changes to Libya's political structure can be imposed by unilateral declaration," tweeted the US embassy in Libya.

"Any attempt to push forward unilateral solutions -- even more so by force -- will never provide a sustainable solution" for Libya, said EU spokesman Peter Stano.

The Russian regime, for its part, attempted to deflect from its clear support for Haftar's coup attempt.

Moscow "is still convinced that the only possible solution in Libya depends on political and diplomatic contacts between the parties to the conflict", said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on April 28th.

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