Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, on Friday after US President Donald Trump praised Libya’s Khalifa Haftar amid a military assault by the renegade general to seize the capital.
A White House statement said Trump and Haftar spoke by phone on Monday “to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts to achieve peace and stability in Libya“.
On April 4, Haftar and his forces launched an offensive against the country’s internationally recognised government, which is based in Tripoli.
In their phone call, Trump “recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”
It was unclear why the White House waited several days to announce the phone call.
Trump’s praise for Haftar was seen in Tripoli as a reversal in US policy on Libya, as earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded an immediate halt to Haftar’s offensive.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Tripoli, said news of the conversation caused anger in the capital with residents perceiving the call as a show of support by Trump for Haftar’s offensive.
“People are very angry, thousands of people have come out here on the main streets and squares especially in Tripoli and they are calling on the international community to stop the military aggression by Haftar forces,” he said.
At least 2,000 people took part in Friday’s protest in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square to protest the push on Tripoli by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).
Abdelrizaq Musheirib, a protester criticised Trump’s call to the commander, telling Reuters news agency: “The call has no meaning but we will respond to it.”
The LNA launched the military campaign against Tripoli on April 4, saying it wanted to “cleanse” the country’s western region of “remaining terrorist groups”.
Analysts say the offensive is threatening to reignite a full-blown civil war in the oil-rich country, which has been mired in chaos since the NATO-backed toppling of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The fighting on the outskirts of the city has killed at least 213 people and wounded more than 1,000 people, the World Health Organization said on Friday. More than 25,000 have been displaced, according to the United Nations.
Haftar backs a rival administration in eastern Libya that refuses to recognise the authority of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.
World powers divided
Al Jazeera’s Rosiland Jordan, reporting from Washington, DC, said the White House’s statement on Friday appeared to contradict the stand of the United States‘s Department of State.
“Earlier this week, the State Department put out a statement calling on Haftar to stand down, to halt this military offensive and the US has been working with the UN on trying to broker some sort of a peace accord in that country,” she said.
“So, it raises the question whether this is a matter of a US president going against its own foreign policy on a critical global issue such as the issue in Libya.”
Jordan added that it was unclear if Trump had initiated the call.
“The White House statement notes that he and Haftar spoke on Monday, it could have been Haftar is looking for some sort of approval on a global stage and made a request to have a conversation with the president,” she said.
The announcement came a day after both the US and Russia said they could not support a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya at this time.
Russia objected to the British-drafted resolution blaming Haftar for the latest flare-up in violence, but the US did not give a reason for its decision. The draft resolution would also call on countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure compliance and for unconditional humanitarian aid access in Libya.
Meanwhile, countries in Europe and the Middle East were also divided on Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli.
Italy and France have sparred over Libya in the past, but on Friday foreign ministers of the two countries said they are trying to forge a common strategy on the North African country.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, France‘s foreign minister, speaking to reporters following a meeting in Rome with his counterpart said: “There can be no progress in Libya without a solid Franco-Italian agreement.”
Enzo Moavero Milanesi, the Italian minister, said lower-ranking ministry officials will meet next week in the Italian capital “to build the path toward a goal that remains a shared one”.
Protesters in Tripoli accused France’s President Emmanuel Macron of backing Haftar, but the French embassy in Libya tweeted in Arabic that Paris was “opposed to the attack” on the city.
Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which view him as an anchor to restore stability in Libya. But Qatar said an existing UN arms embargo on Libya should be strictly enforced to prevent the commander from receiving arms.
Also on Friday, the UN refugee agency said it evacuated 163 refugees and migrants from Libya to neighbouring Niger, but more than 3,000 others were still trapped in detention centres affected by clashes between the LNA and GNA forces.
Libyan authorities had previously detained the refugees and migrants to stop their passage to Europe.
The UNHCR said the refugees from various African nations included dozens of women and children, who had all been held in detention centres near the front lines of the conflict.
The agency said it remained “extremely concerned” for the safety of those who remain “trapped” in Libya.