Operation Dignity (2014)

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Operation Dignity
Part of the post-civil war violence in Libya
Date May 16, 2014 – present
Location Libya
Status Ongoing
Belligerents
Libya Operation Dignity Coalition

Other forces loyal to General Haftar:

  • Zintani brigades
    • Qaaqaa Brigade
    • Sawaiq Brigade
Libya Libyan Government

Ansar al-Sharia
Other Islamists loyal to the government:

Commanders and leaders
Libya Maj. Gen. Khalifa Belqasim Haftar
(Commander of the Libyan National Army)
Libya Nouri Abusahmain
(President of the GNC)

Libya Ahmed Maiteeq
(Prime Minister of Libya,
Islamist backed, disputed election)

Maj. Gen. Abdulsalam al-Obaidi
(LNA Chief of Staff)

Casualties and losses
200+ killed[1]

Operation Dignity (Arabic: عملية الكرامة‎; translated Al-Karamah) is the codename given to a large scale air and ground offensive in Libya currently being carried out by forces loyal to General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar on 16 May 2014. It started in Benghazi but later spread to other parts of the country in a campaign Haftar describes as a "correction to the path of the (Libyan) revolution" and a "war on terrorism".[2] The initial target was the powerful Islamist militias in Benghazi and Haftar's aim is to purge the country of their presence.[3][4] However, many Libyans have questioned whether Haftar's stated aim is merely a pretext for staging a coup, while the Islamist militia group Ansar al-Sharia that is believed to have a significant role in the 2012 Benghazi attack denounced Haftar’s campaign as a "war on Islam" backed by the West.[5] On 18 May 2014 the operation was extended into Tripoli, with the storming of the Libyan General National Congress building. The uprising is so far the most serious challenge to the Libyan authorities since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.[6]

Taking sides[edit]

On May 19, 2014, a number of Libyan military officers announced their support for Gen. Haftar, including those at an air force base in the eastern city of Tobruk, others who have occupied swaths of the country’s oil infrastructure, and members of an important militia in Benghazi. On the other hand, fighters from Misrata said they would soon move on Tripoli to counter Haftar’s assault, but in the recent months, the renegade general has gathered allies in his stronghold of Bayda, 125 miles east of Benghazi, from among a disenfranchised former officers corps.[6]

Additional supporters of the movement include Libya's former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, only recently ousted by GNC Islamist parties, and Libya's ambassador to the United Nations who had announced his backing of Haftar's offensive against Islamist lawmakers and extremist militias, just hours after the country's air force commander had made a similar move, further building support for a campaign. The current Prime Minister has described Operation Dignity as a coup d'état.[7][8] The commander of the army's special forces also said he had allied with Haftar.[9] However, the show of support for the general appears to have triggered a heavy backlash, as Libya's navy chief Brig. Gen. Hassan Abu-Shanaq, who also announced his support for Haftar's revolt, was wounded in an assassination attempt in the capital Tripoli along with his driver and a guard. Late Tuesday, the air forces headquarters in Tripoli came under a rocket attack but no casualties were reported.[8][10]

Timeline[edit]

May 16–17: Operation Dignity offensive in Benghazi[edit]

Fighting[edit]

Hostilities first broke out early in the morning of Friday 16 May 2014 when Gen. Haftar's forces assaulted the bases of certain Benghazi Islamist militia groups, including the one blamed for the 2012 assassination of US ambassador Christopher Stevens. Helicopters, jets and ground forces took part in the assault, killing at least 70, and injuring at least 250. Haftar has vowed to not stop until the extremists groups are purged.[11][12] Shortly before the assault Haftar reportedly asked a close friend, "Am I committing suicide?"[13]

The operation, codenamed "Operation Dignity" by Haftar, began when forces loyal to General Haftar attacked units of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, the Libya Shield No. 1 (Deraa No. 1) Brigade, and Ansar al-Sharia. Fighting was largely confined to the south western Benghazi districts of Hawari and Sidi Ferej. In particular the fighting focused on the area between the south-western gate checkpoint and the cement factory; an area controlled by Ansar al-Sharia. As part of the fighting helicopters were seen over Hawari. Fighting was also reported in the port area between marines and the Libya Shield No. 1 (Deraa No. 1) Brigade.[14]

Haftar's forces seemingly moved on Benghazi from the east, with some units originating from Marj. Included within these forces were various tribal units. Elements of the Libyan military in Benghazi then seemingly joined them. There were also unconfirmed reports of forces loyal to Ibrahim Jadhran’s Cyrenaica federalist forces fighting alongside units loyal to Haftar.[14]

Although the Libyan Air Force and marines have close links with the Saiqa Special Forces Brigade, neither the Brigade, nor the Benghazi Joint Security Room, were seemingly involved. The BJSR former spokesperson, Colonel Mohammad Hejazi, spoke of Libyan military forces fighting "terrorist formations" in the Benghazi districts of Sidi Ferej and Hawari. Hejazi also claimed that Libyan “army forces” were now in control of a camp at Rafallah Al-Sahati. Libya Herald also claimed that an eyewitness had claimed to have seen tanks belonging to the Saiqa Brigade stationed on the road in front of its camp at Buatni. The Brigade called for Benghazi residents to avoid districts witnessing the clashes.[14]

As a result of the fighting the streets of Benghazi were largely empty. The fighting also saw roads into Benghazi being effectively closed, whilst several flights in and out of Benghazi's Beninan Airport were cancelled or delayed.[14]

The following day, fighters from Rafallah al-Sahati and the 17 February Brigade also returned to their bases, from which they had been driven off the previous day.[15]

Haftar's subsequent press release[edit]

On May 17, Haftar held a press conference in which he proclaimed that the current GNC was no longer representing the Libyan people and was illegitimate. He claimed to have uncovered evidence that the GNC had opened Libya's borders to avowed terrorists and had invited numerous international Islamist fighters to come to Libya, offering them Libyan passports. He explained that his primary aim was to “purge” Islamist militants from Libya, specifically the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood.[16]

Government reaction[edit]

At a government press conference held as a response to the Benghazi assault, acting Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni condemned the move by Haftar as illegal and claimed that the move undermined attempts to confront terrorism. Thinni had called Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organisation earlier in May 2014.[14]

Thinni claimed that only 1 Libyan Air Force plane had taken part in the clashes, alongside 120 army vehicles, although eyewitnesses reported to CNN as having seen multiple aircraft involved in the assault.[17]

Major General Abdulsalam Jad Allah Al-Salheen Al-Obaidi, the Chief of Staff of the Libyan National Army, also condemned the attack by Haftar, and called forces loyal to him "intruders into Benghazi". Instead Obaidi urged “revolutionaries” in Benghazi to resist them.[14]

The next day, Libya's army responded to Haftar's airstrikes by proclaiming a no-fly zone over Benghazi banning all flights over the city in a direct challenge to Haftar in order to prevent the paramilitary force from using air power against Islamist militias in the region.[18][19][20]

Casualties[edit]

By the end of the first day Haftar's LNA had seemingly suffered 4 dead and 24 wounded. LNA dead and wounded were taken to a hospital in Marj. The number of dead and wounded from the Islamist groups was made difficult due to Ansar al-Sharia's policy of not releasing casualty reports. The 17th February Brigade similarly released no figures.[14] Overall, the resulting battle claimed between 70 and 75 lives.[11]

May 18: Operation Dignity offensive in Tripoli[edit]

Gen. Haftar’s militia allies backed by truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, mortars and rocket fire attacked parliament, sending lawmakers fleeing for their lives as gunmen ransacked the legislature, declaring the body suspended. A commander in the military police in Libya read a statement announcing the body's suspension on behalf of a group led by Haftar.[21]

The clashes began on the evening of Sunday 18 May, beginning first at the GNC building, before then spreading to Hay Al-Akwakh, particularly in the area of the steel bridge on the Airport road. Missiles were also reported to have fallen close to the TV station on Ennasr Street. Heavy firing was also heard in the Corniche area on the way to Mitiga airbase. The clashes however died down by the late evening.[22]

Later on Sunday evening a group of 5 officers, who identified themselves as the Leaders of the Libyan Army, announced the suspension of the General National Congress. The officers, under the lead of the Zintani former head of Military Intelligence, Col. Muktar Fernana, instead announced that the Constitutional Committee would carry out the work of the GNC. Under the plan al-Thinni's government was to remain in office, and would oversee the formation of military and security forces. The statement therefore blocked Ahmed Maiteeq from assuming the position of Prime Minister. Col. Fernana also proclaimed that the Libyan people "would never accept to be controlled by a group or organization which initiates terror and chaos".[23] Col. Fernana claimed that Gen. Haftar had assigned a 60 member assembly to take over from the GNC, with the current government acting only on an emergency basis.[24]

May 19–20: Military commanders endorse Operation Dignity movement, some militias oppose it[edit]

On Monday 19 May Col. Wanis Abu Khamada, the commander of Libya's Special Forces, announced that his forces would be joining Haftar's operation against Islamist militant groups in Benghazi. Khamadas Special Forces had previously come under attack from Islamist militants in Benghazi, with dozens of members of the unit being killed. In his declaration Khamada announced that his unit would join Haftar's Libyan National Army "with all our men and weapons".[25] Khamada argued that the operation was "the work of the people".[26] By Monday the death toll for Friday's clashes had reached 79.[25] However, the Tripoli-based Al-Qaeda-inspired Lions of Monotheism group announced that it would fight forces loyal to Gen. Haftar.[27]

Forty members of parliament,[28] and the heads of the navy,[29] the air-force,[30] and much of the army have endorsed Haftar. On the evening of May 21 the National Forces Alliance issued a statement of support of Haftar, proclaiming that Libyans have found themselves "drowning in swamp of terrorism, darkness, killing and destruction". The following day the official Libyan news agency claimed that the Interior Ministry had announced its support for Haftar's operation, in direct contrast to the governments denunciation of the operation as a coup.[31]

The Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room issued a call for serving military personnel to desert, claiming that they did not need the support of Haftar. The group called on its forces to temporarily withdraw from the Army, and to disclose to their commanders the names of anyone involved in attempting to kill either officials or members of the security forces. it would seek the prosecution of named individuals through the Attorney General’s office. In their announcement LROR claimed that they would lead the fight against criminals in Libya, and would carry on without Haftar or his operation.[32]

May 21: Additional military commanders endorse Operation Dignity, both sides trade accusations of terrorism[edit]

In a televised statement late Wednesday Haftar appeared in a military uniform surrounded by military officers and accused the current Islamist-led parliament of turning Libya to a state "sponsoring terrorism" and a "hideout to terrorists" who infiltrated the joints of the state, wasted its resources and controlled its decision making. He asserted that the military wants the continuation of political life and stressed that the new council is a civilian one in an apparent attempt to defuse fears of militarizing the state.[33]

Tripoli residents reported several loud explosions earlier that day near the al-Yarmouk air defense barracks. This came after the air defense top commander Juma al-Abani released a video message saying he was joining Haftar's campaign against Islamists. Heavy fighting involving anti-aircraft machine guns mounted on trucks also broke out overnight near an army camp in Tajoura, an eastern suburb. The city was quiet by dawn. The health ministry reported that at least two people from Mali died in the fighting.[34]

Ansar al-Sharia issued a statement denouncing Haftar's operation as a "war against the religious Muslim youth". The group instead claimed that they had been the subject of a hate campaign by those against Islam and Sharia, and that their opponents were the real terrorists. The group instead claimed that they wished to safeguard Muslim blood and had not hindered the building of Libya's security organisations. The group claimed that the campaign against them was being conducted by "evil television channels" and were led by "ex-regime sympathisers and secularists supported by their masters in the west". The group also asked tribes to prevent their sons from joining Haftars forces.[35]

May 22 - May 31: Weekly pro-Haftar demonstrations, political and military developments[edit]

On both May 23 and May 30 after Friday prayers, tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in various cities including Tripoli and Benghazi in support of Gen. Haftar and his campaign against Islamist militias and also in support of Haftar's calls to suspend parliament. In Benghazi, thousands of pro-Haftar demonstrators gathered outside Tibesti Hotel and in the city's Tahreer Square, as well as others in the city of Bayda further east. "No to militias, Libya will not become another Afghanistan" and "Yes to the army, yes to the police", their banners read. Meanwhile, crowds in Tripoli's Martyr's Square chanted against the parliament and in support of a national army and police force to replace the militias that run rampant in the country. They sang the national anthem as they waved the flag and carried banners that read "Yes to Dignity". They called for an official response to the militias. "Libya is in trouble, we want police, we want army", they chanted. While some Libyans don't back Haftar and don't want military rule, they support what he is doing.[36][37][38] The protest, dubbed the "Friday of Dignity", took its name from the offensive launched by Haftar, one week ago in the eastern city of Benghazi. The demonstrations were some of the largest the country has seen since the uprising three years ago and were the first since then to be held simultaneously in cities across Libya, which put more pressure on the embattled Islamist-led parliament to offer concessions. The interim government issued a statement in support of Friday’s protests and reasserted its proposal this week to suspend parliament. "The participation of tens of thousands [in the protests] requires all to answer to the demands of the people who represent legitimacy that can't be ignored", the statement said.[38]

In opposition to Haftar, Islamist militias from Misrata, known collectively as the Libyan Central Shield, have deployed in the capital amid a standoff with forces loyal to Haftar.[39] They are under the command of the country's chief of staff who answers to the GNC.[40] This followed calls by the head of the now boycotted GNC and the army chief on the Islamist militias to defend the interests of the Islamist backed position of the GNC.[39][41][42]

Meanwhile, within the Libyan government itself, an intense power struggle has emerged between Maiteeq and Thinni for leadership of the Libyan government, including conflicting orders and statements.[43] On May 28, Operation Dignity forces carried out airstrikes on the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, one of the biggest and best-trained Islamist militias in eastern Libya. The Islamists allegedly responded with anti-aircraft fire.[44][45]

Reactions[edit]

  •  Tunisia - In response to the clashes the Tunisian National Council for Security held an emergency meeting on the 18 May, and decided to send 5,000 soldiers to the Tunisian–Libyan border in anticipation of potential consequences from the fighting.[46]

References[edit]

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