Libya divides Europe and Gulf

As Haftar siege rages, Italy fears terrorists will infiltrate boats crossing Mediterranean

Raging conflict in Libya has further stirred divisions in Europe and in the Arab world as some Arab countries are backing the Benghazi-based general Khalifa Haftar offensive against Tripoli, while others are siding with Europe in attempts to stop him, news wires reported. Last Tuesday, Qatar, for example, called on for a blocking of foreign arms supplies to eastern Libyan forces, which are staging a two-weeks long siege on the capital.

Nearly two weeks into its assault, the veteran general’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) is stuck in the Tripoli's southern outskirts battling armed groups loyal to the internationally-recognised Tripoli government. At the same time foreign powers are worried but unable to present a united front over the latest flare-up in the cycle of anarchy and warfare that has gripped Libya since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

The conflict has brought a growing humanitarian toll - 174 dead, 756 injured and 18,250 displaced according to latest UN tallies, and sunk for now an international peace plan. It threatens to disrupt oil flows, foment migration across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, and allow jihadists to exploit the chaos.

While Qatar is insisting that an existing UN arms embargo on Libya should be strictly enforced, to prevent Haftar from receiving arms, he enjoys the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who view him as an anchor to restore stability and combat Islamist militants. According to Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani, a postponed UN peace conference should be rescheduled and Haftar's troops forced to withdraw. The arms embargo must be implemented “to prevent those countries that have been providing ammunitions and state-of-the-art weapons from continuing to do so,” he said.

But UN reports say the UAE and Egypt have both supplied Haftar with arms and aircraft, giving him air superiority among Libya's multiple factions. East Libyan authorities say Qatar and Turkey back rival, Islamist-leaning factions in western Libya. According to UN envoy Ghassan Salame, Haftar tried to stage a coup by issuing an arrest warrant for PM Fayez al-Serraj.

The Gulf diplomatic divisions echo those in Europe, where former colonial ruler Italy and France have sparred over Libya. Paris has given Haftar support in the past, viewing him as the best bet to end the chaos since a NATO-backed rebellion to end Gaddafi's four-decade rule. Italy, with considerable oil interests in the OPEC member, supports the Tripoli government of Serraj and was furious with French reluctance to back a recent EU resolution urging Haftar to halt his advance. Furthermore, Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said Haftar's offensive had heightened the risk of militants joining migrant boats in the Mediterranean heading for his country.

So far Serraj has managed to keep the LNA at bay, thanks largely to armed groups who have rushed to aid them from other western Libyan factions. Though Haftar presents himself as a champion against what he calls terrorism, opponents cast him as a would-be dictator in the mould of Gaddafi. He was among officers who helped Gaddafi rise to power in 1969, but fell out with him during a war with Chad in the 1980s. He was taken prisoner by the Chadians, rescued by the CIA, and lived for about 20 years in Virginia before returning in 2011 to join other rebels in the uprising against Gaddafi.

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