Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Haftar after Moscow

Libya’s Haftar continues to cement his authority in Libya following a key visit to Russia, writes Kamel Abdallah


Haftar  after Moscow
Haftar after Moscow

اقرأ باللغة العربية

The Commander General of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar performed an about face on the stance he took against Libya when an Italian warship weighed anchor in the port at Tripoli. He announced that he welcomed the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to issue a warrant for the arrest of LNA Special Forces commander Mahmoud Al-Werfalli who is charged with war crimes in the course of the three-year-long battle against Islamist extremists in Benghazi.

Field Marshal Haftar and his delegation arrived in Moscow 13 August for a three-day visit in which he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu and a number of other Russian military leaders. In addition to discussing local, regional and international developments related to the Libyan crisis, the talks focused on securing Russia’s help for lifting the arms embargo against Libya and the possibility of renewing the armaments contracts signed between Tripoli and Moscow during the Gaddafi era.

In a joint press conference held with Lavrov, Haftar vowed to continue the fight against terrorist organisations in Libya until he succeeded in extending the LNA’s full control over the country. He took the opportunity to criticise the “unjust arms embargo at a time of unlimited support for terrorism”. He added that his involvement in the political process in Libya was “in response to the requests of brotherly nations”.

Haftar, at the press conference, also broached the understanding he struck with the chairman of the Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj during a meeting in Paris brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron. Haftar maintained that Al-Sarraj had breached the agreement and could not fulfil his pledges because of the militias that control Tripoli.

Lavrov, for his part, stressed that Moscow was committed to the UN-sponsored Libyan National Accord signed by Libyan factions in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015. At the same time, he acknowledged that the situation in Libya was “still extremely complicated”.

According to press reports on the Haftar visit to Russia, Moscow spearheaded mediating efforts between him and Italy after tensions flared when Italian naval vessels entered Libyan territorial waters in order to revive an agreement to help the Libyan coastguard perform its duties to prevent illegal migration. Haftar condemned what he described as the violation of sovereign Libyan waters by hostile vessels.

Reports relate that Moscow succeeded not only in eliminating the tensions between Haftar and Rome, but also in improving the relationship between Italy, on the one hand, and Haftar and Cairo, on the other. In addition, Russia offered guarantees to Haftar on coordinating over the Libyan question and limiting French involvement in Libya. France has recently begun to become more active in the Libyan arena, especially in the south which, historically, had been a sphere of French influence since the UN mandate given to France to administer it following Italy’s defeat in World War II. France is also keen to increase its influence in western Libya where it has franchises to drill for oil and gas in the Nalut district. The prospect disturbs the Italians who fear that it would threaten the influence of the mighty Italian energy conglomerate ENI, which has the lion’s share of investments in the oil and gas industry in western Libya.

According to the reports, Italy has stressed its determination to protect its interests in western Libya and, particularly, the areas where ENI operates and it has expressed its concerns over French efforts to drill in Nalut district which sits atop billions of cubic metres of natural gas. Russian mediating efforts have therefore worked to convince France to delay reopening its activities in that district while confirming its right to operate there.

Haftar confirmed the Russian mediating efforts during an interview on the Panorama programme broadcast on Russian television on 15 August. He described Italy as a friendly nation and pledged not to take action against its naval vessels. He also asked Russia to do what it could to end the international arms embargo on Libya and underscored the need to amend the Libyan National Accord.

It was also on 15 August that prosecutors at the ICC issued a warrant for the arrest of Mahmoud Bouseif Al-Werfalli, the LNA Special Forces commander, who is “alleged to have directly committed and to have ordered the commission of murder as a war crime,” as the ICC website reported. The crimes occurred during seven incidents, involving 33 persons during the period from or before June 2016 to July 2017 in and near Benghazi.

Al-Werfalli has appeared in a number of videos circulated on the internet in the process of executing persons he accused of being ISIS members. In spite of the fact that numerous Libyan activists had drawn attention to these acts and called for him to be brought for justice, and although the LNA announced that he had been arrested and would be brought to trial, he was subsequently seen in footage showing him overseeing the execution of 21 persons he accused of being IS members.

The LNA general command welcomed the ICC decision in a televised statement read by the LNA spokesman Ahmed Al-Mismari on 17 August. “We would like to inform you that the accused in your suit is currently subject to investigation by the military public prosecutor in connection with the same charges attributed to him in the warrant for his arrest. He has been under custody since Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar issued the order to launch an investigation on 2 August 2017.”

The statement stressed that the LNA general command was ready to cooperate with the ICC and keep it informed on the progress of investigations.

Human Rights Watch called on Libyan authorities to take immediate steps to facilitate the surrender of Al-Werfalli to the ICC. Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The ICC warrant for Al-Werfalli is a wake-up call to other abusive commanders in Libya that one day their serious crimes could land them in a prison cell in The Hague.”

“Human Rights Watch reviewed seven videos and several still images that appear to show distinct incidents of LNA-affiliated soldiers executing prisoners in their custody,” the international rights watchdog wrote on 16 August. “Some of these videos and images show fighters desecrating the bodies of supposed fighters who opposed the LNA, including the burning and kicking of a corpse and posing for photographs with another corpse that had a leash tied around its neck.”

After describing other video footage, the report relates: “On August 8, Human Rights Watch emailed the LNA for comment on the videos and photographs that appear to show Al-Werfalli presiding over or carrying out the execution of prisoners. Human Rights Watch did not receive a response.”

The governments of France, the US and Britain welcomed the LNA general command’s decision to investigate the allegations unlawful killings in Benghazi. Noting that they were “monitoring ongoing acts of conflict in Libya closely,” the French, US and British governments stressed in a written statement that, “those suspected of committing, ordering or failing to prevent unlawful killings and torture on all sides must be fully investigated and held accountable, as appropriate.”

They added: “We will continue our efforts at the international level to pursue appropriate action against those who are complicit in violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law, whatever their affiliation. We consider that it is in Libya’s interest to be able to rely on unified security forces responsible for the country’s security and acting within the framework of Libya’s laws and respecting international law.”

In Libya, meanwhile, a number of LNA field commanders rejected the ICC warrant and staged a rally in support of Al-Werfalli. The Werfalli tribe, to which the Special Forces commander belongs, also condemned the arrest warrant and denounced it as “new colonialism” that they would fight like they did the old colonialism.

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