Political killings drive Libya toward new civil war

Oct. 24, 2013 at 3:52 PM
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TRIPOLI, Libya, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- Libya indicted more than 20 officials linked to ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi Thursday, including his son Said al-Islam, in Tripoli, while in the rebellious eastern city of Benghazi gunmen assassinated a senior air force officer outside his home.

Sunday was the second anniversary of the slaying of Gadhafi at the hands of a mob, ending an eight-month civil war and 42 years of often barbaric rule in the oil-rich North African state.

After two years of anarchy, and a wave of political assassinations like Thursday's killing of Col. Adel Khalil Ataiwahani, Libya stands on the brink of a new civil conflict that has its epicenter in Benghazi, crucible of the NATO-backed uprising that brought down Gadhafi.

Most of the officials were charged in absentia in indictments in Tripoli, related to regime atrocities committed during the battle to topple Gadhafi, reflect the anarchy.

Gadhafi's former intelligence chief and member of his inner circle, Abdullah al-Senussi, was present but Saif al-Islam was not. He is reported being held by a tribal militia in its stronghold, the western town of Zintan.

Some sources say the militia, which has aligned itself with tribes that once formed Gadhafi's power base, is doing more to protect him than bring him to justice.

Radical militias, including jihadists deeply embedded in Benghazi, have been fighting each other and forces considered loyal to the shaky central government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.

The premier was kidnapped Oct. 10 by carloads of gunmen from the heavily guarded tower-block Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, where he resides. He was released shaken but unharmed several hours later in the Interior Ministry.

Zeidan, a Western-backed human rights lawyer who returned home from exile in Switzerland to take part in the post-Gadhafi political process, accused hard-line officials linked to lawless militias of plotting a coup.

Some of the militias, he warned, seek to turn Libya into "another Afghanistan or Somalia."

The country faces a grave post-war economic crisis, with a four-month-old shutdown of most oil fields and export terminals by rebel units in the east and tribal militias in the west.

Production has plunged from around 1.2 million barrels per day to around 200,000 bpd, virtually zero, as the rival militias fight for control of Libya's oil riches.

Although Zeidan emerged unscathed from his ordeal, "it is clear his political support base is dwindling throughout the country and within the government," observed the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor.

"This has been reflected in the months-long production halt in the country's vital hydrocarbons sector and in ongoing security lapses across much of the country... .

"Zeidan's capture indicates the long-term trajectory of Libya's future: With little hope for internal coherence and stability, shows of force like Zeidan's seizure likely will beget more violence," Stratfor noted. "With a quickly deteriorating central state, Libya likely will fail to create a mechanism or leadership body capable of guaranteeing stable oil production or exports, further straining an economic model that has kept Libya's loosely affiliated interests from a full-scale civil war since Gadhafi's ouster."

The danger is that the violence will spill over far beyond the boundaries of Libya as part of Gadhafi's toxic legacy. His plundered arsenals have already armed Islamist insurgents across North Africa to the Sinai Peninsula and even Syria, while al-Qaida has exploited the post-war power vacuum to turn the country's southern desert into a new sanctuary.

Zeidan, who heads the transitional parliament known as the General National Congress, does not have the firepower to force the militias into line.

The militias, armed from Gadhafi's enormous armories, reflect the deep regional and political divisions between the east of the country, known as Cyrenaica, with Benghazi as its capital, and Tripolitania in the west centered on Tripoli.

The capital has largely been spared the major militia clashes that have battered Benghazi, where jihadists hold much of the power.

They killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans Sept. 11, 2012.

In recent months, there have been more than 100 killings in Benghazi, with dozens of security officials assassinated.

Col. Ahmed Mustafa al-Barghathi, commander of Libya's military police, was fatally wounded Oct. 18 by gunmen outside his home. That killing triggered a wave of violence across the city that's still smoldering.

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