Tuesday, January 27, 2015

CIA-linked General Haftar seizes Benghazi branch of Libyan Central Bank

The UN yesterday condemned an attack on the office of the Libyan Central Bank in the city of Benghazi in the east of Libya. The attack appears to have been carried out by forces loyal to CIA-linked general Khalifa Haftar. The Libyan central bank has attempted to remain neutral in the conflict between militias and two rival government. The internationally recognized government is in Tobruk, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni. The rival government that controls much of the western part of Libya is in the capital Tripoli and led by Prime Minister Omar al-Hasi appointed by the General National Council. The neutral role of the bank is crucial in maintaining whatever unity is left in the country: "It has continued to pay for fuel and food subsidies as well as the salaries of bureaucrats, doctors, teachers, local officials and millions of other public employees — often regardless of whether they showed up for work. By financing the budgets of the Interior and Defense Ministries, the same bank has even provided salaries and supplies for thousands of fighters battling one another from all sides of the struggle. But its continued distribution of paychecks and subsidies has helped communities and families across the country stay afloat despite the collapse of most other economic activity, even maintaining a semblance of order." Up until now both the headquarters in Tripoli and the branch in Benghazi have been under the control of the Tripoli government.

Benghazi was until recently controlled by the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries that includes the radical group Ansar al-Sharia. The leader of that group recently died of wounds incurred in battling against CIA-linked Khalifa Haftar's militia. Haftar's forces are responsible for the attack on the bank. A New York Times article put the challenge to the bank in frank terms:" Its most direct challenge has come from the Tobruk-Bayda government. It includes a recently elected Parliament, but it is under the de facto control of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who defected from Colonel Qaddafi’s military and last year announced a military takeover pledging to rid the country of violent extremists."

The chairman of the National Bank, Sadik el-Kaber, a veteran banker has pleaded with both sides to respect the neutrality of the bank, but the Tobruk government has sought to replace him ever since last October so that they would be able to control the assets. El-Kaber has kept the bank's assets in Tripoli and has refused to resign. In spite of the fact that the Tobruk government is the recognized government El-Kaber still appears to have the support of at least some western governments including the US and the UK. Last month he flew to Washington where he met with US and UK diplomats and officials from the White House and Treasury Dept.The Tobruk-appointed manager also visited this month but was not accorded the same status according to a New York Times article.

The storming of the Benghazi bank has already resulted in the withdrawal of the Tripoli government from a second round of talks that should take place soon. While neither the government at Tripoli nor the main militia, Libya Dawn, took part in the first round, the militia had announced a ceasefire, and the government had agreed to attend the second round of talks if they were held in Libya and not Switzerland. A spokesperson for General Haftar, Mohamed Hejazi, confirmed that they had taken control of the bank and also now control of 80 percent of the Benghazi seaport. He refers to Haftar's forces as "the national army of Libya" and his opponents in Benghazi "terrorists". Benghazi had been ruled by the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries but Haftar launched an offensive to retake the city some time ago.

After the meetings in Geneva, the main Tripoli militia announced a cease fire. A couple of days later, the Tobruk government also announced a ceasefire. However, there was a caveat to the effect that terrorists would still be pursued. There has been no let up in the attacks by Haftar in Benghazi since he considers his opponents terrorists. However, Haftar considers all his Islamist opponents terrorists. Haftar appears to be using the ceasefire as an opportunity to concentrate on taking control of Benghazi while not having to worry about a battle on other fronts. It remains to be seen if Libya Dawn will allow him to continue in this manner. In any event, it would seem that Haftar has managed not only to sabotage planned peace talks but also to threaten to destroy a key remaining Libyan institution that has kept Libya running through all the conflict. Since the main branch is in Tripoli, his action may cause the Tripoli government to cease control there.

Egypt and no doubt many western countries support Haftar and his campaign against Islamists, but perhaps there may be considerable doubts about the wisdom of his actions. Haftar through his Operation Dignity and his earlier ineffective attempt to dissolve the General National Council last year was in large part responsible for the present conflict. Operation Dignity was launched in May of last year with an attack on two Islamist militia bases in Benghazi and then an attack on the parliament which was ransacked and burned. Below is a video about the start of Operation Dignity: The present prime minister of the Tobruk government, Abdullah al-Thinni was then prime minister of the GNC government. He declared Haftar's action illegal and a coup attempt. Now the same Abdullah Al-Thinni is prime minister of the Tobruk government. On November 6, last year the Libyan Supreme Court ruled that the elections in June of last year were unconstitutional and that the Tobruk House of Representatives should be dissolved. Al-Thinni and the Tobruk government rejected the ruling. The international community has studiously ignored it. This is one more key Libyan institution simply ignored by the Tobruk government.

Al Thinni applauded the court when it decided that a rival prime minister appointed by the GNC by Islamists was ruled not to have been duly appointed leaving al-Thinni as the caretaker prime minister. The Islamist-supported candidate in that case accepted the ruling.

A commander of Haftar's forces, Col. Farraj al-Barasi. told Reuters that the forces were forming a committee to decide what to do with the money from the bank: “We’ve moved out the technical equipment.The cash is still in the safes.” This strikes me as bizarre. What government would allow their armed forces to make such a decision. Yet the Tobruk government expresses full confidence in Haftar: "The commander of the Libyan National Army, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, is operating on the authority of the internationally recognized Libyan government based out of Tobruk, Libyan authorities confirmed this week. " If that is true, then the UN and the international community should be taking action against that government. Not only are they sabotaging a cease fire but they are also sabotaging peace talks, and exacerbating the situation by seizing the assets of the Libyan Central Bank whose neutrality has been crucial to what unity and stability still exists in Libya.

While the UN has threatened sanctions against any party that blocks the transition to democracy in Libya it is unlikely any action will be taken against the Tobruk government or Haftar. Haftar is the champion of the fight against terrorism as is his mentor next door in Egypt, Prime Minister el-Sisi. Rather than being subject to sanctions he is likely to receive even more support. This is a recipe for more civil war not peace.