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article imageLibyan strongman Haftar a reluctant key player in crisis talks

By AFP     Nov 13, 2018 in World

Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar is a crucial player in the latest international bid to stabilise the violence-wracked North African nation, but he has shown great reluctance to be involved.

Field Marshal Haftar, whose forces control all of northeastern Libya, had said he would not join this week's talks in Palermo, Italy which hope to kick-start a long-stalled political process and trigger elections.

However he met with his UN-backed rival Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and other leaders on Tuesday ahead of more inclusive roundtable talks, an Italian official said.

Haftar, 75, presents himself as Libya's saviour in the face of a growing jihadist threat, but his opponents accuse him of wanting to establish a new military dictatorship.

The white-haired field marshal with striking black eyebrows arrived in Palermo from his Benghazi stronghold on Monday evening, but did not attend a working dinner with other leaders.

Haftar's office has denied he is attending the actual conference, saying he refuses to sit down with certain participants who he sees as close to the Islamists that he fiercely opposes, militarily and ideologically.

"Haftar is being difficult as he has done several times in the past," said Paris-based Libya specialist Jalel Harchaoui.

"This attitude cuts both ways because it has a sensational effect that momentarily ups his value, but his interlocutors who are humiliated by this will always remember," he said.

- Leading fight against jihadists -

Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar's forces dominate the east of the country
Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar's forces dominate the east of the country
Abdullah DOMA, AFP/File

Libya fell into chaos following the NATO-backed uprising that toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

Two rival administrations emerged -- Sarraj's Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and another authority in the east backed by Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

Haftar's hostility towards the GNA has been seen as a major cause of the current crisis.

But he has gained in stature for fighting jihadists.

In 2014, Haftar launched his "Dignity" operation to retake Benghazi after it fell to hardline militias. His forces took the city in July 2017 following more than three years of deadly fighting.

After Haftar was hospitalised in Paris for two weeks earlier this year, fuelling speculation about his health, he returned to Benghazi with great fanfare in April.

To reaffirm his status as a strongman, he quickly launched a successful operation to oust Islamist militias from the city of Derna, which had been the only part of eastern Libya out of his control.

- Part of Kadhafi's rise and fall -

Conte (L) greeted Haftar upon his arrival in Palermo for the conference
Conte (L) greeted Haftar upon his arrival in Palermo for the conference

Originally from Cyrenaica in Libya's east, Haftar received military training in the then Soviet Union before taking part in the 1969 coup which brought Kadhafi to power.

He served in Kadhafi's armed forces but fell from grace when he was captured by Chadian troops during Libya's ill-fated 1978-1987 conflict with its neighbour.

Tripoli denied Haftar was part of the Libyan army, and he languished in jail until Washington granted him political asylum.

After more than two decades living in the United States, where it was rumoured that he worked for the CIA, in 2011 he returned home to take part in the uprising against Kadhafi.

Italy is the latest country aiming to bring Libya's disparate and often warring factions together after a Paris summit in May saw the GNA and Haftar agree to hold national polls on December 10 -- a date which has fallen by the wayside.

Analysts say the summit risks being compromised not only by tensions between Libyan factions but also the competing agendas of foreign powers.

According to diplomats and analysts, Russia, France, Egypt and the UAE support Haftar, while Turkey and Qatar have thrown their weight behind rivals to the strongman, especially Islamist groups.

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