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Middle East

Top Libyan commander joins rebel forces

Colonel al-Abbani announces support for renegade general Khalifa Qassim Haftar's campaign against hardline gunmen.

Last updated: 21 May 2014 13:34
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Ex-rebels who fought against Gaddafi have formed their own fiefdoms amid lack of government troops [AFP]

The top commander of Libya's air force has joined the ranks of renegade general Khalifa Qassim Haftar, backing his "Dignity Operation" that targets religious hardliners, and adding to divisions in a country still reeling from political unrest since the 2011 revolt.

Colonel Gomaa al-Abbani's announcement late on Tuesday is among a series of loyalty pledges made by military units and commanders to Haftar.

The official Libyan news agency said on Wednesday that the Interior Ministry has also announced its support for Haftar's offensive, which the government has described as a coup attempt.

Haftar, who defected from Libya's army in the 80s and heads a group called the Libyan National Army (LNA), announced a ground and air military campaign in the eastern city in Benghazi to "flush the terrorists out".

He accuses the government of not doing enough to curb the influence of armed groups across the North African state.

The retired general had led the rebels' campaign against Muammar Gaddafi's troops in 2011, and has since been part of a security challenge which the government's weak troops have been unable to contain.

Ex-rebels have been demanding bigger shares of the country's oil-based wealth and decision-making process.

Hours after al-Abbani's announcement, witnesses said rockets targeted military camps in the capital, Tripoli, the AP news agency reported.

Explosions

Witnesses reported loud explosions near the al-Yarmouk barracks in the Salaheddin district but the cause was unclear, the Reuters news agency reported. Gunfire and explosions later appeared to die down.

There was also heavy fighting near an army camp in the eastern Tajoura suburb. "We're hearing really loud explosions and gunshots near the camp but we don't know is shooting," a Tajoura resident said.

Other parts of the capital appeared to be quiet. Tripoli had become calmer in the past two days after Haftar's forces stormed the parliament building. The Libyan parliament, which saw its mandate expire in February, finds itself split between hardline and non-hardline members of parliament.

Late on Tuesday, the non-hardline politicians and voting bloc called the National Forces Alliance issued a statement apparently supporting Hafter, saying Libyans have found themselves "drowning in swamp of terrorism, darkness, killing and destruction".

On Tuesday, Libya's election commission announced parliamentary elections would be held June 25, a top demand among most Libyans.

In a bid to defuse the crisis, the Libyan cabinet has proposed the suspension of the parliament until fresh elections are held.

The government called on local councils across the country to support the proposal to freeze work until an upcoming national vote and repeat the election of the prime minister, according to a statement.

Businessman Ahmed Maetig was named as the new prime minister two weeks ago in a chaotic vote disputed by parliamentarians.

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