Strongman Haftar back in Libya after long absence: AFP

Benghazi (Libya) (AFP) –


Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar returned Thursday to the eastern city of Benghazi after a long stay abroad, including for treatment in a Paris hospital, an AFP correspondent reported.

The 75-year-old, smiling and dressed in a black suit, greeted generals from his self-styled army after descending from a plane, in his first public appearance for weeks.

After walking down the red carpet, Haftar entered the airport lounge where officers, politicians and tribal dignitaries gave speeches of welcome.

"I assure you that I am in good health," he told the gathering, thanking them for their support and loyalty.

Among them was his chief of staff, General Abdelrazak al-Nadhuri, who survived a car bombing in Libya's second city Benghazi on April 18.

Haftar was hospitalised in Paris in mid-April for what his spokesman said at the time was "normal checkups" after he fell ill during a scheduled trip abroad.

Conflicting reports on his absence fuelled rumours in the press and on social media in Libya about his health and possible death.

Libya has been gripped by chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, with rival administrations and multiple militias vying for control of the oil-rich country.

Haftar supports a parliament based in the east of the country, while a UN-backed unity government in the capital Tripoli has struggled to assert its authority nationwide.

Last summer, Hafter announced the "total liberation" of Benghazi, after a three-year campaign to seize the city from jihadists who had made it a stronghold following the revolution.

He is accused by his rivals of wanting to establish a new military dictatorship in Libya.

Jihadists with the Islamic State group remain active in central and southern Libya despite being forced out of their northern stronghold Sirte in 2016.