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Libya’s Oil Rebels Side With General Attacking Islamists

Khalifa Haftar, retired Libyan military leader, speaks during a news conference in the town of Abyar, 70 km southwest of Bengahzi, on May 17, 2014. Source: AFP/Getty Images
Khalifa Haftar, retired Libyan military leader, speaks during a news conference in the town of Abyar, 70 km southwest of Bengahzi, on May 17, 2014. Source: AFP/Getty Images

May 20 (Bloomberg) -- A rogue general in Libya who’s confronting Islamist militias and seeking to shut down the country’s parliament gained support in the east of the country among both soldiers and some separatist groups.

Rebels who hold ports in eastern Libya, blocking oil exports since July, expressed support for Khalifa Haftar, the retired military leader who heads a self-proclaimed National Army. Haftar’s stated goal of crushing armed Islamist groups also won backing from a key army commander in the east.

As Libya’s government accuses Haftar of attempting a coup, his forces put on a show of strength at both ends of the country, attacking Islamist groups in Benghazi and storming the parliament in the capital. The unrest is the latest evidence of the breakdown of authority in the oil-rich North African nation three years after the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.

Conflicts in Libya, where oil production has slid to less than a fifth of its capacity, helped drive up the price of Brent crude by as much as 18 percent to $117.45 a barrel between April and August last year. Brent for July settlement was 23 cents higher at $109.62 a barrel on the ICE Futures Europe exchange at 7:20 p.m. London time.

Election Date

In a bid to ease tensions, Libya’s electoral commission announced that parliamentary elections will be held on June 25, the official Lana news agency reported. The current assembly will vote for a new prime minister and pass a budget, then stop work until a new parliament is elected, according to a statement on the Cabinet website.

Haftar defected from Qaddafi’s army in the 1980s, finding refuge in the U.S. He was one of the commanders of the rebellion that broke out in February 2011 in Benghazi and ended Qaddafi’s 42-year rule.

In an interview with the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper published today, Haftar threatened to arrest and send to trial senior parliament and government officials and Muslim Brotherhood members on charges of crimes against the Libyan people. He also ruled out any international intervention and said he’ll run for president if asked to by the Libyan people.

On May 18, Haftar’s ally, Mukhtar Fernana, declared that parliament had been disbanded after his militia stormed the assembly. Nuri Abu Sahmain, the head of the General National Congress, denied that it had been suspended and said he was running it from a “safe place.”

Embassies Close

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Algeria are among countries to have closed their embassies in Tripoli, where the fighting has left two people dead and 66 wounded. At least 70 people have been killed and 141 injured since battles erupted in Benghazi on May 16, the Health Ministry said. Oil-producing regions haven’t been affected, according to Mohamed Elharari, a spokesman for the National Oil Corp.

The Executive Office for Barqa, the group seeking autonomy in eastern Libya, said it backed Haftar’s operations. In another blow to the Tripoli government, the leader of the army’s special forces in the east, Colonel Wanis Abukhamada, said he was joining forces with Haftar.

In a statement on Al-Nabaa TV, Abukhamada said Haftar’s campaign is targeting “gangs of extremists” that have taken the lives of many Libyans, including members of the security forces. “Anything that jeopardizes the lives of civilians or the nation will be crushed,” he said.

Haftar’s National Army is deploying tanks and artillery to Tripoli, according to its Facebook page. In the capital, Sahmain, the head of parliament, summoned the Libya Shield militia to defend “vital facilities,” according to Lana.

Libya’s governments since the fall of Qaddafi have failed to disarm the rebel groups that helped overthrow him, weakening central authority in the country. Crude production declined to 215,000 barrels a day last month after export terminals in the east were seized by the separatists.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai at mchmaytelli@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaric Nightingale at anightingal1@bloomberg.net Ben Holland, Caroline Alexander

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