On 24 August, a group called Fajr Libya (translation: Dawn of Libya) an Islamist militia group from Misrata, announced the capture of Tripoli International Airport after over a month of fighting. The airport’s capture effectively gives them control of the nation’s capital.
Since the 2011 fall of Libyan dictator Moamar Gadhafi, Tripoli and its airport had been under the control of the government-allied liberal Zintan militia, one of the largest and most disciplined militia groups in Libya. The capture of the region served as a huge blow to the Zintan militia and the government. Fajr Libya has also announced their control of cities adjacent to Tripoli, adding that they have pushed Zintan nearly 60 miles out from the capital. The weeks of fighting in Tripoli have seen the worst violence in the country since 2011, destroying large parts of the airport and causing chaos in the city. Many diplomats, NGOs, foreign nationals and Libyan citizens have evacuated the country.
Early on 24 August, fighters from Fajr Libya also attacked the Tripoli-based studios of private television station Al-Assima, which supports the Zintan nationalists. The militiamen destroyed station equipment and kidnapped some of the staff, according to Al-Assima.
Fajr Libya’s capture of Tripoli International Airport effectively gave the group control of the seat of the nation, which has serious implications for Libya’s faltering government. The group has refused to recognize the transitional Libyan government that was elected in June. Rather, Fajr Libya has called on the outgoing government, the Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) to resume operations. The militant group summoned the GNC to meet in Tripoli.
This action essentially created two rival and hostile centres of government power, both of whom consider the other to be illegitimate. Mohamed Bouyassir, a senior adviser to the Libyan army, said there could be “two parliaments and two governments.” The western government would be dominated by Islamists, including members the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militia group that has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US and was sanctioned by the UN. Supporters of the GNC government have been accused of “rejecting the democratic process,” calling the GNC “remnants of the post Gadhafi leadership who were refusing to surrender their hold on power.” One official adds that under the GNC, state funds were diverted to Syria and Iraq, and that “the whereabouts of huge amounts of money were not known to anyone apart from them.”
In the East, the government would be controlled by the House of Representatives (HoR), which was elected in June to replace the GNC, reportedly to put an end to political dominance by factions linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The House of Representatives has fled to Tobruk in eastern Libya to conduct government operations; among the first orders of business was their declaration of Fajr Libya as a terrorist organization. The HoR is relying on support from ‘rogue’ General Khalifa Hiftar’s and his Libyan National Army (LNA) to combat the militants in the region. On 24 August, the Tobruk government issued a statement calling the LNA “the official army of the state.” The statement represents a huge shift; the GNC had accused Hiftar’s group of attempting to stage a coup. The LNA has focused primarily on combating militias in Benghazi; however they claim to have launched a series of airstrikes against Fajr Libya fighters. The LNA is reportedly increasing their capabilities in hopes of restoring national security.
Adding to the friction, on 25 August, the GNC appointed a new prime minister over Libya. The group elected Islamist-backed Omar al-Hassi as prime minister, a parliamentary spokesman and lecturer in political science at the University of Benghazi. Hassi has been charged with forming a “salvation government”. Local television stations reported that 94 politicians attended the meeting, a sufficient number for quorum.
Mysterious airstrikes, Egyptian proposal
Further complicating matters, airstrikes by unidentified warplanes have struck the positions of Islamist militias in Tripoli, killing 13 fighters. The Fajr Libya militia accused Cairo and United Arab Emirates of being behind the airstrikes. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has vehemently denied those claims, adding, “There are no Egyptian aircraft or forces in Libya, and no Egyptian aircraft participated in military action inside Libya.” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri echoed Sisi’s denials, calling the accusations “unsubstantiated rumours,” and adding that Egypt “respects Libya’s popular will and elected parliament.” Emirati officials have not commented.
Despite the denials, Western officials believe that the airstrikes were conducted in a joint Egypt-UAE effort. In a joint statement, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy cautioned, “outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition.” Though the statement did not directly accuse any country of the airstrikes, one anonymous official said that Washington was aware of the plans for an Egyptian-Emirati operation and warned the countries against following through. The US said they had no prior notification of the attacks, nor do they believe it was conducted with authorisation from the Libyan government.
Meanwhile on 25 August, a day after the accusation of airstrikes against Tripoli, the Egyptian government presented a proposal to disarm rival militias in Libya. The proposal was backed in a Cairo-based ministerial meeting with leaders from Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Niger and Chad. All attendees agreed to back Libya’s “legitimate institutions, especially the parliament”, including in the rebuilding of the country’s military and police.
In a press conference after the meeting, Shoukri said, “The initiative reached a number of governing principles, the most important of which is respecting Libya’s unity and sovereignty, rejecting any intervention in its domestic affairs, abiding by a comprehensive dialogue, renouncing violence, and supporting the political process.”
The Egyptian proposal, which will be submitted to the United Nations and the Arab League, provides a framework for Libyan militias and armed factions to gradually lay down their arms. It adds that foreign parties should refrain from exporting and supplying the “illegitimate factions” with weapons, and foreign intervention “should be avoided.”
Libyan lawmakers, for their part, have voted to ask the United Nations to intervene in the ongoing militia battles. Libyan Ambassador to Egypt, Faid Jibril said, “Libya is unable to protect its institutions, its airports and natural resources, especially the oilfields.” Leaders in Libya have also added that they do not necessarily require military intervention; Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdelaziz called on assistance in training Libyan troops in order to prepare the Libyan army to combat the armed elements. Further, they seek international assistance in preventing the violence from spreading to other nations.
Officials in France, the United States and the United Kingdom, along with the United Nations Secretary-General, have condemned the abduction of Libya’s Prime Minister. Shortly after his release, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan accused a “political party” of organizing his brief abduction, which was carried out by armed gunmen during the early morning hours on Thursday. The latest incident to stun Libya has further reflected the weakness of the country’s government.
During the early morning hours on Thursday, Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from a luxury hotel, the Corinthia, in downtown Tripoli and held for several hours by armed militiamen. Photographs depicted Mr. Zeidan being surrounded by more than 100 armed men and being led away. There were no reports of violence during his capture. Sources have indicated that the Prime Minister was abducted with two of his guards, who were beaten and later released. Shortly after his abduction, an employee of the hotel where Mr. Zeidan was living in indicated that a “large number of armed men” had entered the building. Although a statement later released by the Libyan government indicated that Mr. Zeidan had been taken “to an unknown destination for unknown reasons by a group” of men believed to be former rebels, eye witness accounts reported that the Prime Minister was held at a police station south of the capital and that his captors had decided to release him after armed residents surrounded the building and demanded that he be released.
Shortly after his release later on Thursday, Mr. Zeidan met with his minister and members of the General National Congress (GNC), which is Libya’s highest political authority. The Prime Minister appeared to be in good health as he arrived at government headquarters later on Thursday. He was seen waving to waiting well-wishers as he climbed out of an armored car. Reports have indicated that the Prime Minister has accused a “political party” of organizing his brief abduction. In comments that were later broadcast by state television as he left a cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister indicated that “it’s a political party which wants to overthrow the government by any means,” adding that “in the coming days, I will give more information on who this political party is that organized by kidnapping.” While the Prime Minister has praised the armed groups that came to rescue him, he has called for calm, stating that “…this problem will be resolved with reason and wisdom” and without any “escalation.” His comments reflect a need for ease as tensions have been rising in Libya ever since US commandos carried out a secretive military operation over the past weekend.
While the motive of the abduction remains unclear, some officials have indicated that it appeared to be in retaliation for the US special forces raid that seized a Libyan al-Qaeda suspect off the streets of Tripoli. Some militias throughout the country have been angered by last Saturday’s US commando raid to capture Anas al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda suspect, who has since been taken away to a warship in the mediterranean where US officials are questioning him about his supposed links to al-Qaeda. In turn, the abduction of Mr. Zeidan has aptly demonstrated the weakness of Libya’s government, which has had difficulties inserting its control amongst a number of powerful militias. Militants were angered by the US capture of the suspected militant and have accused the government of either colluding in, or allowing the raid to occur. Furthermore, confusion pertaining to the Prime Minister’s kidnapping was increased after varying reports indicated that he had been arrested. In the absence of an affective police force or military in Libya, many of the militias in the country are under the pay of either the defence or interior ministries however their allegiance and who really controls them is in doubt.
Meanwhile international officials have condemned the kidnapping of Libya’s Prime Minster. The United States has denounced the kidnapping, with US Secretary of State John Kerry calling the act “thuggery.” The Secretary of State also noted that “today’s events only underscore the need to work with Prime Minister Zeidan and with all of Libya’s friends and allies to help bolster its capacity with greater speed and greater success,” adding that there could be “no place for this kind of violence in the new Libya.” A statement released by the UN on behalf of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged all Libyans to respect the rule of law, noting that “the secretary-general calls on all Libyan parties and the Libyan people to form consensus around national priorities and work towards building a strong, stable country, respectful of the rule of law and the protection of human rights.” officials in France and the UK also pledged swift support for Mr. Zeidan. French President Francois Hollande stated that he stood ready to strengthen ties with Libya in order to tackle the militants. Meanwhile a spokesman for David Cameron indicated that the UK’s prime Minister had spoken to a “calm and measured” Ali Zeidan after his release and had promised to help build a “stable, free, peaceful and prosperous” Libya.