The Russian-backed chief of the Libyan National Army (LNA), former Gen. Khalifa Hafter, announced that his armed group has totally liberated the eastern city of Benghazi from jihadists groups, a move that extends the reach of the territory under his control, announced the Libyan strongman.
In a television address Wednesday paying homage to a “caravan of martyrs” who fell in the recent battle for Benghazi, the former Gen. Haftar declared: “After a continuous struggle against terrorism and its agents that lasted more than three years… Today Benghazi enters a new era of peace, security, reconciliation… and reconstruction,” reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Aid from Russia has fueled the growing strength of Gen. Haftar, who reportedly reached an agreement allowing him to run for president of Libya next year, under a pact with the current Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. This year, American Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the chief of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), told reporters that Russia is fomenting instability and worsening the deteriorating political condition of the country. While Moscow lends financial and military support to Gen. Haftar’s faction that controls eastern Libya, the United States is backing the United Nations-sanctioned Government of National Accord (GNA).
Gen. Haftar declared war on the fighters controlling Benghazi in 2014, three years after the 2011 U.S.-backed overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his subsequent execution.
The ruthless Benghazi-based al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL) is responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on an American diplomatic compound that killed four Americans: U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty.
However, recent heavy losses have decimated ASL leadership and wiped out its fighters, prompting ASL to announce in May it is disbanding, a claim that has yet to materialize.
As in the past, ASL’s demise may allow the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) to regroup in Libya, once the group’s largest bastion outside Iraq and Syria. ASL reportedly helped ISIS establish its branch in the past, possibly as a means to stay alive a relevant a wing of the ruthless Islamic State.
Benghazi remains ASL’s main stronghold. At the peak of its power, Ansar al-Sharia was present in Benghazi and Derna in eastern Syria, with offshoots in the coast city of Sirte and Sabratha in western Libya.
Libya became a breeding ground for jihadists group after the 2011 removal of Gaddafi.