Khalifa Haftar, putschist general of eastern-based illegitimate forces, unilaterally declared himself the ruler of Libya on Monday, violating international agreements and threatening efforts for stability and a political solution in the conflict-ravaged country once again.
In a video message, Haftar pointed to street demonstrations in areas under his control and claimed he "accepted the mandate of the Libyan people" to govern the country.
He said the agreement, signed by the warring sides in Libya under the auspices of the United Nations, has "lost its rule."
The agreement was signed in 2015 in Morocco. As part of the agreement, the U.N.-recognized legitimate Government of National Accord (GNA) was formed to manage the transition process in Libya.
It also acknowledges the House of Representatives based in Tobruk as the country’s official legislature and grants consultative powers to the previous parliament based in Tripoli.
Haftar and his political allies tried to prevent this agreement from entering into force with his initiatives in the field.
In a speech last week, Haftar asked his supporters to hold demonstrations and give him the mandate to rule. He also tabled the possibility of a "constitutional declaration," raising fears that the country could end up being partitioned.
Following Haftar’s unilateral declaration, Libya’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj stated that unilaterally declaring himself the ruler of Libya once again revealed that his coup project must be ended.
“Hunger for power and foolishness reached its peak level. Declaring a new coup, the putschist added a new attempt to his long series of coups d'etat,” he added.
Mohammed Ali Abdallah, an adviser to the GNA, also said in a statement: "Haftar has once more exposed his authoritarian intentions to the world. He no longer seeks to conceal his contempt for a political solution and democracy in Libya. His statement tonight is the final, desperate act of a defeated man."
Another statement came from Libya's High Council of State early Tuesday. "What the war criminal Haftar said was a coup on the democratic path, not new but a continuation of his failed coups and to cover up his repeated defeats," it said.
The council called on the U.N. and its mission in Libya "to assume their political and moral responsibilities toward the people, and rejected the futility of war criminal Haftar and his disrespect to the unity of Libya and the will of its people."
Haftar has been accused by his detractors of seeking to impose a new military dictatorship in Libya.
He made similar remarks in 2017 and three years earlier also appeared on television to say that he was taking the reins of power in Libya.
Since the ouster of late ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, two seats of power have emerged in Libya: renegade military commander Haftar in eastern Libya, mainly supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which enjoys U.N. and international recognition.
Libyan government forces have been under attack by Haftar's forces since last April, and international efforts to enforce a cease-fire have proven unsuccessful. The abrupt resignation of U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame earlier this year cast further doubt on the fate of Libya’s hamstrung political process.
Russia surprised by Haftar claims
Moscow is surprised by Haftar's self-declaration as a unilateral ruler of Libya, an official at the Russian Foreign Ministry has said.
"This is surprising. There are decisions of the Berlin summit, and more importantly – the U.N. Security Council resolution 2510, which must be implemented first of all by the Libyans themselves with the assistance of the international community, the U.N. secretary-general," the diplomat, who wished not to be identified, told the state-run RIA news agency on Tuesday.
Moscow urged the conflicting parties to restart negotiations. "We advocate for the continuation of an inclusive inter-Libyan dialogue within the framework of the political process, and there is no military solution to the conflict," the official said.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had said that approaches to conflict settlement must be worked out by rival Libyan groups, while outside players should try to bring them to the negotiating table and find common ground.
"We have always called for the principle that decisions must be approved directly by the parties to this conflict, and we will only help them to sit down at the negotiating table," he said, adding that Russia will continue to help Libya emerge from its crisis.
The U.S. Embassy in Libya said it “regrets” Haftar’s unilateral proposal to alter Libya’s political structure and urged him to engage in “serious dialogue” about the country’s next steps.
"The United States regrets... commander Haftar's suggestion that changes to Libya's political structure can be imposed by unilateral declaration," a statement on its embassy's Twitter account said.
"As civilians continue to suffer during the holy (fasting) month of Ramadan and the COVID-19 pandemic threatens more lives, we urge the LNA (Haftar's forces) to join the Government of National Accord in declaring an immediate humanitarian cessation of hostilities," it said.
Haftar's unilateral declaration of becoming the ruler of Libya is unacceptable and will never provide a sustainable solution for the country, a spokesman for the EU's foreign policy also said on Tuesday.
"Any attempt to push forward a unilateral solution, even more by force, will never provide a sustainable solution for the country. Such attempts can't be accepted", Peter Stano said.
Stano pointed out that the Skhirat agreement signed under UN auspices "remains the viable framework for a political solution in Libya until amendments or replacements are found."
Stano also reiterated the previous EU calls for an inclusive Libyan-led peace process to find a political solution with the participation of all parties involved in the conflict and the help of the international community.
Haftar continues targeting civilians
Meanwhile, Haftar forces have ratcheted up their military campaign to seize Tripoli, ignoring calls by the U.N. and the West for a cease-fire so authorities can direct resources to the coronavirus pandemic.
A mother and child were killed east of Libya's capital by a militia affiliated with warlord Haftar, the Libyan government media office said in a statement on Monday.
The statement added that Haftar militia shelling of residential areas in the city of al-Qarbouli left three others injured along with damaging homes.
Libyan GNA forces also said that Haftar's forces, since Saturday, continue to target residential areas in the town of Ain Zara, south of the capital Tripoli.
In response, GNA forces conducted airstrikes on Al-Watiya airbase, which is controlled by militias loyal to Haftar.
GNA military spokesman Mohammed Kanunu issued a statement on developments at the airbase in western Libya.
Kanunu said GNA forces conducted five airstrikes targeting pro-Haftar soldiers and military vehicles at the base.
The airstrikes were carried out in response to attacks by Haftar's militias on civilians in Tripoli, it added.
Al-Watiya is regarded as one of the most important airbases in the country and is second only to Mitiga Airport. It was captured in August 2014 by Haftar, who used it as his headquarters for western operations.
Later in the day, Haftar militias launched more than 65 rockets into civilian residents in Msallata, a town 130 kilometers (80 miles) east of Tripoli, according to a written statement by the press center of GNA-led Operation Volcano of Rage.
The attacks caused civilian casualties and serious material damage in the city, the statement said.
As part of measures against the novel coronavirus, a cease-fire took effect in Libya on March 21 but Haftar's militias have continued attacks on the capital. Haftar said his forces would continue their offensive “until the end.”
Haftar's offensive to seize Tripoli ground to a stalemate that has left hundreds dead and some 200,000 displaced. Although they advanced last year into the southern suburbs of Tripoli and has been bombarding the capital frequently, it lost ground to pro-GNA forces during fighting this month.