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Armed confrontation in Benghazi looks set to escalate

The failure of General Khalifa Haftar’s forces to enter Benghazi and the reduction in casualty statistics have pushed him to use air and artillery power to weaken his enemies. Most of the casualties in the first day or so of the confrontation are believed to be among his forces.

This escalation by Haftar has a harmful effect on, in the main, civilians. His enemies know that his use of the air force and artillery for the past ten days is paving the way for a ground attack. As such, allies of Ansar Al-Sharia made a pre-emptive strike against Battalion 21’s camp in Tabellino; this battalion announced its support for Haftar and could be a starting point for an attack on the stronghold of the extremist militia nearby. The army camp has tools, weapons and ammunition that the movement needs for a fight that may last for some time. Ansar Al-Sharia succeeded in entering the camp and seizing weapons, vehicles and ammunition before making a tactical retreat.

This operation suggests that an escalation looms; forces loyal to Haftar will not stand by and watch their camps and troops become easy targets for Ansar Al-Sharia. Unless limited mediation efforts are successful the confrontation looks set to get more vicious.

There are signs of disagreement between moderate Islamic groups resisting Haftar and Ansar Al-Sharia following a statement by the latter in which officials rejected the political process and the democratic path. This may lead to a breakdown of the coordination that was clear at the beginning of the confrontation. However, it is not expected to affect the strength and steadfastness of opposition to Haftar for two reasons. First, the attack on the barracks in Tabellino coincided with an attack by pro-Haftar forces in the south-west of Benghazi, which was repulsed by opposition groups. Second, leaks confirm the existence of a military front containing battalions and groups that do not include Ansar Al-Sharia operating under a unified leadership.

The unrestrained use of heavy artillery by one side could lead to the use of car bombs and explosive belts by the other, leading to mass destruction and a huge loss of life. The city faces chaos and terror.

What is missing so far is the sound of reason and wisdom counselling against the use of force to impose a fait accompli on the people of Libya. Those who advocate reason prefer legitimate, democratic means to stand up to terror.

The situation is critical, so I call on popular and widely respected figures such as Sheikh Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Dr Mohammed Maqrif, Dr Mahmoud Jibril and Sheikh Sadiq Ghiryani to put aside their differences in the face of the threat of war. We need an initiative to stop the fighting which they could lead, calling for a consensus that is based on removing the causes of the current crisis. This includes looking into the role of Haftar and his plans, and ways of dealing with Ansar Al-Sharia and their strict approach. The symbolic value of such figures could gather support from the majority of Libyans for their initiative and thus avoid the spectre of a war that could kill the hopes of ever rebuilding the country.

Translated from Arabi21, 2 June 2014

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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