BENGHAZI, Libya — Libya is on the verge of an all-out war involving a rogues’ gallery of militias, many of which are little more than criminal gangs armed with heavy weapons.
The country slid into chaos after the 2011 uprising, in which rebels overthrew and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and looted his vast arsenal. Even more weapons have flowed in since then, despite a U.N. arms embargo, as Arab states have backed local allies and Western nations have partnered with militias to combat extremists and stem the flow of migrants.
A former general is now marching on the capital, Tripoli, where an array of militias — which have fought each other in the past — have for now joined forces to prevent a return to one-man rule. The fighting has already killed around 150 people, according to U.N. figures. The International Crisis Group, a Washington- and Brussels-based think-tank , said last week that the two main coalitions “appear equally matched,” with fighter jets, gunships and heavy artillery.
The self-styled Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, launched a surprise offensive to retake Tripoli on April 5. Hifter’s opponents view him as an aspiring dictator, and one of his commanders is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, accused of dozens of extrajudicial killings.
Hifter, who served as a military officer under Gadhafi before defecting in the 1980s, has presented himself as a strong leader who can unify the country. He has spent the last few years battling extremist groups and other rivals in eastern Libya with aid from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and France. He now controls most of eastern Libya, including the country’s main oil facilities, and has recently made inroads across the south.
His forces include the remnants of Gadhafi’s army as well as tribal fighters and ultra-conservative Islamists known as Salafists. They appear more like a regular army than their adversaries, with uniforms and a clear chain of command. The LNA is allied with other militias from the western city of Zintan that were driven out of Tripoli in 2014.
Hifter’s forces boast MiG fighter jets supplied by neighbouring Egypt, as well as drones, attack helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles.
Their heavy weapons and air power give them an advantage in open areas. But they have struggled in urban combat, and their campaigns in the east have left a swath of destruction in Benghazi and other cities. A similar scenario could play out in Tripoli, with local militias luring Hifter’s forces into the city and fighting block by block.
The U.N. and Western nations support a transitional government set up in Tripoli in 2016 and led by Fayez Sarraj, a technocrat with no military experience. His government was forced to court powerful militias for its own protection, and these groups have vowed to repel Hifter’s forces.
Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says the main Tripoli militias dominate Serraj’s government and have infiltrated its institutions to pillage state resources. In …read more