Libya's Haftar claims mandate to rule as rivals denounce 'coup' attempt

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Tripoli (AFP)

Libya's UN-recognised government Tuesday accused rival military strongman Khalifa Haftar of seeking to stage a new coup after he claimed to have a "popular mandate" to govern the country.

Accused by critics of wanting to install a new military dictatorship, Haftar, who controls swathes of eastern Libya, announced his self-styled "army" was "proud to be mandated with the historic task" of leading Libya.

Analysts said his move was a sign he wanted to consolidate his power after a series of setbacks earlier this month, when GNA forces captured a string of strategic towns west of Tripoli.

The oil-rich North African nation has been gripped by chaos since the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, with rival administrations in the east and west vying for power.

Haftar claims legitimacy from an eastern-based parliament elected in 2014, but did not say whether it supported his move.

He also did not say whether that parliament, which was forced to move its headquarters after violence ripped apart Tripoli six years ago, would be dissolved.

A source close to Haftar said he was preparing to announce a new government in eastern Libya.

Haftar also announced the end of the Skhirat Agreement, a 2015 United Nations-mediated deal signed in Morocco that produced the Tripoli-based unity government.

- 'Rising desperation' -

In a pre-dawn statement, the Government of National Accord in Tripoli denounced Haftar's announcement as "a farce and the latest in a long series of coups d'etat".

Haftar previously announced the end of the Skhirat Agreement in 2017 and three years earlier also said on television that he was taking power in Libya.

Pro-Haftar forces been fighting to try and seize Tripoli since April last year, and the GNA claimed his latest announcement was an attempt to "conceal the defeat of his militias and mercenaries" and "the failure of his dictatorial project".

According to Hamish Kinnear, an analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, "Haftar's decision to formalise his direct control of eastern Libya is a sign of his rising desperation in the face of GNA successes in western Libya".

"By sweeping aside the authority of the (parliament) and electing himself as undisputed leader in the east, Haftar is making himself central to any negotiated solution to the civil war," Kinnear added

In the past fortnight, pro-GNA forces aided by Turkey have captured two strategic towns west of Tripoli and are now encircling Haftar's main rear base at Tarhunah, 60 kilometres (39 miles) southeast of the capital.

In recent months, foreign military support has exacerbated Libya's conflict, with the United Arab Emirates and Russia backing Haftar and Ankara supplying the GNA.

On Tuesday however, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow "is still convinced that the only possible solution in Libya depends on political and diplomatic contacts between the parties to the conflict".

Washington called for dialogue between the two sides and a "humanitarian" truce.

The American embassy in Libya wrote on Twitter: "The United States regrets... Haftar's suggestion that changes to Libya's political structure can be imposed by unilateral declaration."

In Brussels, European Union spokesman Peter Stano said "any attempt to push forward unilateral solutions -- even more so by force -- will never provide a sustainable solution for the country".

- Divided lawmakers -

The GNA said Haftar had "turned his back on the parallel political institutions that backed him and designated him" head of the army.

Like Libya itself, lawmakers are divided between those who support Haftar and those in Tripoli who oppose him.

On Tuesday, the GNA invited "those lawmakers remaining in the east to rejoin their colleagues in Tripoli to resume dialogue and relaunch the political process".

"Haftar is now demanding that (the parliament) submit entirely to the army, whether by common accord or by unilateral force," said Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.

Few of the elected officials in the east were likely to rejoin the anti-Haftar lawmakers in Tripoli, he said.

According to Emad Badi, a Libya analyst at the Atlantic Council, by announcing he was taking power, Haftar hopes to establish himself as the only power in eastern Libya and oust any actors in favour of dialogue.

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