19 April 2019

Libya: Tripoli Government Attempts to Pressure France Over Haftar Support

The French government has rejected claims by Libya's UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) that it has been supporting Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have launched a military offensive to take the capital Tripoli. Libya's interior ministry said it was suspending all relations with France over support for Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA).

Claims of French support for Haftar are "completely unfounded", according to a French foreign ministry official cited by the AFP news agency.

The authorities in Paris support the "legitimate" government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and UN-led mediation for "an inclusive political solution in Libya", the French presidency said in a statement.

Libya's Interior Minister Fathi Bach Agha had accused Paris of supporting the "criminal Haftar" and ordered the "suspension of all relations between the ministry and the French side", the Tripoli authorities said, according to AFP.

France has publicly backed the UN-backed government in Tripoli, but evidence on the ground has long pointed to tacit support from Paris for Haftar's LNA.

"The GNA in Tripoli is under a lot of pressure and they will try to play whatever card they may have," Mohamed Eljarh, an expert with Libya Outlook Research and Consultancy, told RFI.

"They are trying to go publicly about the French role in an attempt maybe that France would pressure Khalifa Haftar to withdraw or to push back," said Eljarh, describing how the GNA wants to try and put the French government under the spotlight.

Longstanding French support for Haftar

French support from the LNA has been "clear and evident" since 2015, according to Eljarh, who was previously a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank. Three French soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash in 2016 during an intelligence-gathering mission in Libya.

"In this war on Tripoli we have not seen any evidence yet of actual French support on the ground," said Eljarh, in a telephone interview from Amman, Jordan.

Nevertheless, Tunisian authorities this week stopped 13 French nationals trying to cross from Libya with arms and ammunition, AlJazeera reported.

French policy has focused on trying to counter "violent extremism and terrorist groups", especially those affiliated to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Eljarh said. He added that it was unlikely that pressure from the GNA would result in a shift in French policy developed over a number of years.

Inaction at UN Security Council

The US and Russia both refused on Friday to support a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya, the Reuters news agency reported.

Russia takes issue with the wording of the British-drafted resolution and criticism of strongman Haftar, according to Reuters. The US gave no justification for its lack of support for the resolution, which also calls on countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure ceasefire compliance.

The French and Russians do not think it is helpful to blame Haftar, according to Eljarh. Furthermore, there are concerns that the network of militia groups employed by the GNA to defend Tripoli contain some "terrorist figures", the Libya analyst said.

"Some in the international community are extremely concerned that if Khalifa Haftar is put under pressure, under the spotlight, and he retreats, we would unleash a worse monster in Tripoli," said Eljarh.

Haftar supporters are waiting for him to "win the war in Tripoli" and establish control over the capital, according to Eljarh. However, the LNA offensive could drag out into a prolonged conflict in which only foreign powers or third-party actors could tip the balance, the analyst added.

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