Libya's eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar salutes as he participates in General Security conference, in Benghazi, Libya, October 14, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI)
Eastern Libyan leader Khalifa Haftar has been receiving care in a hospital in Paris, leading to concerns that his absence could increase instability in the region. The 75-year-old general has been a major force in Libya after the country declined into civil conflict in 2011. He is an ally of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia and is considered a key to stability in North Africa.
Haftar returned to Libya from exile in 2011, after an uprising resulted in the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Haftar is from eastern Libya, where he set up a base of power as the country fell into civil conflict. Chaos in eastern Libya and the rise of extremist groups led to the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in 2012.
In 2014, Haftar launched a series of military operations to uproot Islamist extremist groups in eastern Libya, removing them from Benghazi and securing the border with Egypt. His army, the Libyan National Army (LNA), also seized control of the oil terminals along the Mediterranean at Ras Lanuf, Es Sidr and Brega, which have since increased production to several hundred thousand barrels a day, according to reports. This gave him considerable power in Libya.
Fellow military man Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Haftar in 2017 and called for an end to a UN arms embargo. Haftar also met with Russian officials and indicated that he would welcome a Russian presence in eastern Libya.
In early April, rumors emerged that Haftar had been hospitalized in France. Last week these rumors began to include claims that he was dead or permanently incapacitated. Several influential Egyptians even tweeted condolences. But Haftar is alive and being treated in Paris, according to France24.
That report has led to speculation that if he is absent from the field too long, rivals or his commanders might not be able told the LNA together. Libya has been in the midst of a civil war for seven years, like Syria, and chaos there has led to arms transfers throughout northern Africa and into the Sinai. Islamic State also put down roots in Libya in 2015. Extremists from the Sahel region have been encouraged by the chaos. On March 24, US forces conducted an air strike near Ubari in Libya killing two al-Qaeda terrorists, one of whom was associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The instability influences the migration crisis for the European Union as Libya is a conduit for human trafficking and slavery. Egypt is concerned because extremists have used Libya as a rear operating area to try to smuggle weapons into Egypt. Cairo has said it has targeted dozens of convoys and hundreds of vehicles seeking to cross into Egypt. For that reason Haftar is a key ally of Cairo.
On April 20, an unidentified group tried to assassinate LNA Chief of Staff Gen. Abdel-Razeq Nathouri in a suicide vehicle bombing, according to the Jane’s 360 military analysis website. This has provided evidence for many people who think that if Haftar is out of the picture various groups will seek to exploit his absence.