Libya‘s renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar is being sued in the United States for war crimes by families who lost relatives in the ongoing conflict between his forces and the UN-recognised government.
The lawsuit was filed at the District Court of Alexandria in Virginia by Libyan families who say their loved ones were killed when Haftar’s forces bombed neighbourhoods outside the capital, Tripoli.
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Abdulhakim Tunalli, 59, is the brother of Msaddek Tunalli who was killed outside Tripoli during an offensive by Haftar’s troops as they tried to capture the city.
According to the lawsuit, Msaddek Tunalli was helping people evacuate Tripoli when he was killed in the bombing. His death is one of three this year explicitly cited in the lawsuit.
Abdulhakim Tunalli, who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday that his brother and others had successfully evacuated the neighbourhood and were on their way out themselves when they became trapped by the shelling.
“Basically what Haftar did – attacking Tripoli, bombing civilians randomly – they killed women and children. And they don’t care,” Abdulhakim said.
Faisal Gill, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the victims’ families, said Haftar is essentially a “warlord” who uses the battle against “Islamic extremism” as an excuse to grab power and try to consolidate control of the country.
Haftar was once a lieutenant to Libya’s former longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi but defected during the 1980s and spent many years in Virginia, eventually becoming a US citizen.
Gill said the next step in the lawsuit will be to serve notice on Haftar, either in the US or in Libya.
The lawsuit seeks $125m in damages.
Loss of key town
News of the lawsuit comes as forces allied to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) took full control of Gharyan, a strategic town south of Tripoli on Wednesday.
The town had been the main forward base for Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which has been fighting to take control of Tripoli for almost three months.
Libyan political analyst Anas el-Gomati said the loss of Gharyan was “huge” for the LNA, as the town had functioned as a key supply chain for the offensive on Tripoli.
“This is where much of the ammunition was distributed, this is where much of the forces not only planned their operations, but left for Tripoli,” he told Al Jazeera from London.
“It’s a huge setback for the LNA, for Khalifa Haftar,” Gomati said.
“Two and a half months ago, this was really not on the books. Many people thought that he was going to take Tripoli.”
The LNA downplayed the territorial loss on Thursday, saying it was “tactical”. The group has now retreated to nearby towns.
Gomati said a counteroffensive by the LNA is likely and Gharyan could be a contested area “for weeks, if not months, to come”.
General Mustafa al-Tayib from the GNA was emphatic the town would remain under the Tripoli-based government’s control.
“We will not allow Haftar’s forces here again,” he told Al Jazeera.