Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, the leader of Libya’s internationally-recognized government, has denounced France for supporting renegade general Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are pressing ahead with an offensive on the capital, Tripoli.
Sarraj said in an interview with the French newspaper Leberation on Wednesday that Libyans were surprised to see Paris backing up “dictator” Haftar, a former army field marshal who is based in eastern Libya and heads a group of militia known as the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA).
“We are surprised that France does not support our government, which is democratic, but supports a dictator,” said Sarraj, who heads the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). “When [French President] Emmanuel Macron called me, I warned him that public opinion was against France. We don’t want Libyans to hate France. France still has a positive and important role to play.”
The Libyan prime minister made the remarks after reports emerged that a group of armed French intelligence operatives had been denied entry into Tunisia from Libya, where they were believed to have been helping Haftar.
The men, claiming to be diplomats, carried communications devices speculated to have been used for keeping in touch with the LNA.
Meanwhile, France’s Le Monde newspaper has also claimed that Paris has been training Haftar’s forces since 2015.
Libyan officials have said the country would cease cooperation with the French government over the European country’s interactions with Haftar. On Monday, Interior Minister Fathi Bach Agha said the French government was supporting “the criminal Haftar,” adding that the GNA would cut security ties with Paris.
The supporters of the United Nations (UN)-backed GNA say France has blocked resolutions at the UN Security Council, the European Union, and other international organizations opposing Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli.
Hundreds of Libyans held a protest against France in Tripoli on Friday, sporting the trademark yellow vests of French anti-government demonstrators and condemning both France and “war criminal” Haftar.
France has publicly denied supporting Haftar so far, saying it has contact with all the factions and rival groups in the war-ravaged Libya.
Libya has been divided between two rival governments, the House of Representatives based in the eastern city of Tobruk and the GNA, headed by Serraj, in Tripoli.
The 75-year-old Haftar, who enjoys the loyalty of a group of armed militia and backing from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, has taken upon himself to protect the government in Tobruk. Armed forces and militia loyal to the GNA have been fighting back.
Haftar launched his deadly campaign to invade and conquer Tripoli — the seat of the GNA — on April 4. Fierce fighting is ongoing on the southern edges of the capital.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the fighting has so far killed at least 264 people and wounded more than 1,200 others. Libyan officials say Haftar’s forces have attacked residential areas as well.