Western Libyans battle against 'new dictator' Haftar

Imed Lamloum
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Militia fighters in clashes with forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar in al-Hira region around 70 kilometres south of Tripoli on Tuesday

Militia fighters in clashes with forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar in al-Hira region around 70 kilometres south of Tripoli on Tuesday (AFP Photo/Mahmud TURKIA)

Al-Hira (Libye) (AFP) - He's only 20, but Mohamad is already fighting in his second Libyan conflict -- after battling the Islamic State group, he is now trying to stop a "new dictator" taking power.

Mohamad has joined fighters from his home town of Misrata, western Libya, to battle against eastern commander Khalifa Haftar who on April 4 launched an offensive to take the capital Tripoli.

"Hundreds of fighters died to get rid of" former dictator Moamer Kadhafi back in 2011, he said.

"We will do everything to make sure these sacrifices were not in vain," he added, standing by a pick-up truck mounted with a machine gun.

Behind him in Al-Hira, at the foot of the Nafusa mountains, a dense fog blended with dust and fumes from a truck and field that were both ablaze.

Haftar is backed by an administration in Libya's east and is fighting forces loyal to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli.

In the complex patchwork of Libya's militia loyalties, Mohamad's armed group styles itself as anti-Haftar, rather than explicitly pro-GNA like numerous other factions.

The young fighter is keen to see the battle through, but his father insists he must return home within a week to go and study in Malaysia.

"I want to stay here. They tell me that the war 'will not stop without you'. But if everyone said the same thing, there would be no-one left on the front," Mohamad told AFP.

Along with fellow Misrata fighters, he took part in the battle to oust IS jihadists from the city of Sirte in 2016.

"And now, Haftar says that he wants to rid the west of the country from terrorism. Where was he when we fought IS?" said Mohamad.

Armed groups from Misrata and numerous towns in western Libya have succeeded in pushing back Haftar's forces a few kilometres south of the capital in recent days.

Haftar's men "run away at each starting gun. They are scared. They can't face us," said another fighter, Hisham Abdallah.

- 'Fight for the homeland' -

On Tuesday the anti-Haftar forces said they had seized strategic positions, cutting the road between the suburbs of Tripoli and the city of Gharyan, which lies some 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the southwest.

"We are advancing towards Gharyan -- we will soon do away with this despot," said a commander from Zintan which was one of the first cities to rise up against Kadhafi in 2011.

"We will continue until Rajma," Haftar's headquarters in Benghazi, this commander said.

His forces hold a security checkpoint that they took from Haftar's self styled Libyan National Army (LNA) less than 20 kilometres from Gharyan.

But shells and machine gun fire forced some fighters to pull back from the checkpoint for a few minutes, as a plane flew overhead.

The atmosphere remained tense, but the men escaped the barrage unhurt and did not lose their position.

"We will defeat (the LNA) because our cause is just. We fight for the homeland, but they fight for one person," said Khalifa Derdira, a 30-year-old from Zintan.

"We will not let him destroy Tripoli or other cities like he's done to Benghazi," he added.

But damage has already been done to the southern outskirts of the Libyan capital, where fighting has left 272 dead and nearly 1,300 wounded, according to the World Health Organisation.

More than 35,000 people have been displaced since April 4, according to the United Nations.

Half way between Tripoli and Gharyan, the city of Al-Aziziya is deserted after residents fled days of clashes.

"Here is the result," said fighter Derdira, as cartridge and shell cases scattered the main street, and the walls of homes sported gaping holes.

Haftar "has decided to destroy the whole country and we will be set back by decades," he added.

"But his fate will be worse than that of Kadhafi," Derdira said, referring to the killing of the ousted dictator by rebels after his capture in 2011.