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Libya Could Descend Into War Again After Army General Launches Surprise Attack On Tripoli


Libya, with its patchwork of militias and a weak central government, could be descending again into war. An Army general who controls part of the country has launched a surprise attack on the capital, Tripoli. The U.S. and other countries are evacuating soldiers and staff now. NPR's Jane Arraf has been following all of this from Amman, Jordan.

Hi, Jane.


CHANG: So can you just describe what exactly is happening now in Tripoli?

ARRAF: So there are these forces that are advancing on the capital. And they had reached the disused airport on the outskirts of the capital. But now there's actually been an airstrike on the only functioning airport. Now, these are forces that have made their way to the outskirts of the city and now going into the center. Dozens of people have been killed, including civilians and soldiers. Almost 3,000 of them have been displaced. There are real concerns that this is actually the start of something. The U.N.'s special envoy for Libya says that they are effectively on the brink of what could be civil war.

CHANG: And this general, Khalifa Haftar, can you tell us a little bit more about him? Who is he?

ARRAF: He is a general who helped to bring deposed leader Moammar Gadhafi to power way back in 1969, and then they had a falling out. And he ends up in exile in the United States where he basically lived plotting to topple Gadhafi until Gadhafi was indeed toppled and killed in 2011. Then he came back. He gathered forces, and he actually took over part of the country, eastern Libya, including Benghazi.

This is a general who has the backing of the United Arab Emirates, which is important because they have a lot of money. He also has the backing of Egypt. So last week, after multiple threats, he popped up to announce that, indeed, this was it; he had ordered his forces to advance to take control of Tripoli, the capital.


LIBYAN NATIONAL ARMY KHALIFA HAFTAR: (Through interpreter) Today we respond to the appeal of our people and our precious capital as we promised them. Their patience has reached an end. Today is our date with destiny to respond to the call of truth, an end to struggle and suffering and pain.

ARRAF: He's saying there that, basically, he was responding to the appeal of people in the capital saying they wanted him to come and, as he put it, liberate them. And he called it an appointment with destiny.

CHANG: Now, we mentioned that countries, including the U.S., are pulling their citizens out of Libya. Can you just tell us about that and what U.S. troops have been doing there?

ARRAF: So Libya really hasn't effectively been under control of any one party or any one government since 2011 basically - since Gadhafi was toppled. And that's made it particularly dangerous. There are ISIS-affiliated groups operating there, al-Qaida-affiliated groups. The U.S. has special forces operating there doing counterterrorism. So on the weekend, the U.S. military pulled out a contingent of troops. The Defense Department said the security was too uncertain to keep them there. And others have pulled out as well. The Italian oil company which is a big player in Libya's huge oil industry has evacuated its expat staff - its expatriate staff. India has pulled out peacekeepers. People are very, very nervous.

CHANG: So let's say the U.N.'s special envoy is correct. Let's say that this does get worse in Libya. What would be the regional impact?

ARRAF: Well, we saw in Benghazi in 2012 when militants attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission there and they killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, that this is really a country that has the potential to go very, very bad. There are all these militant groups operating there. It's a major oil producer. It's of particular concern to Europe because it's a major transit point for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to try to get to Europe.

So this is a country that really hasn't been stable. It's very precarious security. There's an internationally recognized government in Tripoli now under threat. So the implications of what happens if General Haftar manages to take the capital - those implications are very serious for what happens not just to Libya but security in the region.

CHANG: Yeah. That's NPR's Jane Arraf. Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.