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Leader of Libya anti-Islamist offensive calls for new civilian council

By Jomana Karadsheh, CNN
updated 1:07 PM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Retired Libyan general calls for new, civilian council to replace interim parliament
  • Khalifa Haftar says interim parliament has turned Libya into "a state sponsor of terror"
  • Libya's electoral commission said this week that elections would be held next month
  • The self-declared Libyan National Army is seeking to eradicate Islamist militias from Libya

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- A retired Libyan general whose movement launched an assault on Islamist militias in Benghazi and demanded the suspension of parliament has called for a new council to take over the running of the country.

Khalifa Haftar said Wednesday that the General National Congress, the interim parliament, had failed the people and that its mismanagement of the country had turned Libya into "a state sponsor of terror... and a hideout for terrorists."

He made his call for a new, civilian council to take its place during a televised news conference in Benghazi.

On Sunday, armed men claiming allegiance to Haftar's newly formed movement, known as the Libyan National Army, stormed parliament and announced they had suspended it.

Fierce fighting sweeps across Libya
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Violence shuts down Libyan parliament

Haftar said Wednesday that since the parliament had refused to "fulfill the demands of the people," he was asking the Higher Judicial Council to appoint a civilian council to lead the country, in the interests of political stability and security.

This council, he said, would have three main tasks: appointing a caretaker emergency government, overseeing the upcoming parliamentary elections and handing over power to the new parliament.

The country's electoral commission announced that elections would be held next month, the state news agency LANA reported Tuesday, in what seemed to be a move to try to ease tensions that drove Libya to the brink in recent days.

Haftar said his forces would secure the country during the transitional period and after that.

The declared goal of the LNA is to eradicate Islamist militants from Libya, including Ansar al-Sharia -- the group blamed for the September 11, 2012 deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

Air force, navy chiefs back Haftar's movement

This week, Haftar's so-called "Operation Dignity," which he has described as an open-ended war on terrorism in Libya, seemed to gain more support from military units, officials and armed groups across the country.

Haftar's men last week launched a land and air offensive against the Benghazi bases of Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamist groups with ties to the government in Tripoli. The resulting battle killed 75 people and wounded 141 more.

The chiefs of staff of the Libyan Air Force and the navy have announced they are endorsing Operation Dignity.

According to LANA, the headquarters of the chief of staff of the air force came under attack by unknown gunmen on Tuesday night, a short while after the announcement was made. There were no reported casualties in the attack, but damage was caused and offices looted and ransacked.

On Wednesday morning, the navy chief survived an assassination attempt in Tripoli when a car with unknown assailants opened fire on his convoy. Gen. Hasan Abushnaq, his two guards and driver sustained minor injuries in the attack.

Those who oppose Haftar, including the government and members of the General National Congress, have accused him of a "coup attempt."

His call for a "civilian" council to run the country appeared to be a response to these accusations, made amid much speculation about his political ambitions.

Asked whether his movement was receiving support from Arab Gulf states or any other country, Haftar said they were depending only on "God and the Libyan people."

Some see Haftar's campaign as an opportunistic strategy capitalizing on Libyans' growing discontent with a weak central government and the deteriorating security situation in the country.

Haftar was once a general in the Libyan army under dictator Moammar Gadhafi but had a falling out with him and emigrated to the United States, where he lived for almost 20 years. He returned in 2011 to participate in the revolution to overthrow Gadhafi.

He has since criticized the government for not getting a grip on violence, particularly from Islamist groups.

Reflecting the continuing state of lawlessness and chaos, explosions and gunfire echoed across the capital in the early hours of Wednesday.

Eyewitnesses said a number of rockets hit areas in southern and eastern Tripoli. However, it was not clear who was involved in the attacks or whether there were casualties in what appeared to be inter-militia fighting, something not uncommon in the city.

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