Washington looks to Haftar to end slave trade in Libya

Heavy smoke rises above buildings during clashes about 40 kilometers south of the Tripoli on April 29, 2019. (AFP)

US President Donald Trump’s continued support for Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar is based on a promise by the military commander to clamp down on the slave trade in Libya and bring soldiers found guilty of human rights abuses to justice, says a former official in the US Department of Defense.

“The US backs Haftar because he is seen in Washington as anti-extremist and anti-slavery,” said Rudolph Atallah, a former counter-terrorism director for the office of the US Secretary of Defense and CEO of White Mountain Research in Virginia, noting that National Security Advisor John Bolton has been acting as an intermediary between the US Administration and Haftar.

“Haftar has promised to stamp down on the slave-trade of illegal migrants in Libya, which the Government of National Accord (GNA) has been unable to stem and which has outraged the world,” said Atallah.

“This has gone down very well in Washington along with his promises to deal with human rights abuses and with Islamic extremists of all hues. This all bodes well for the Libyan National Army (LNA),” he added.

Washington is also linking the increasing number of ISIS attacks on the LNA to the possible military purpose of dragging LNA units away from Tripoli, according to a US intelligence assessment seen by Al Arabiya English.

Fayez Serraj, Prime Minister of the GNA in Tripoli, has been touring European capitals seeking help in his battle against Haftar, as well as threatening European companies with contract terminations. However, the on-ground reality in Libya and the growing certainty of US support for Haftar have been forcing a diplomatic reassessment.

Haftar already controls southern and eastern Libya and has now besieged the capital Tripoli in the north of the country with fierce fighting ongoing in its suburbs.

Taking Tripoli would give Haftar control of Libya’s immigration routes, worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year to smugglers, with migrants systematically treated inhumanely and sold in what the International Organization of Migration (IOM) has called “slave markets.”

The possibility of closing down the migrant slave gangs is said to have been a key consideration behind the Trump Administration’s blocking of a draft UN Security Resolution condemning Haftar’s assault on Tripoli and calling for a ceasefire.

Hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants come from war-torn and hostile parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel region to northern coast around Tripoli, where they aim to start their journey across the Mediterranean to Europe, as promised by smugglers.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) documented how thousands of smuggled migrants, including women and children, have perished during arduous sea crossings, frequently after having been beaten, raped, tortured, and robbed on their way through Libya.

So far this year, 17,000 people entered Europe by sea from Libya, with 493 deaths. This week, the IOM reported that a vessel which left Zuwara city, on the north-western coast of Libya, capsized with at least 50 deaths.

“By taking Tripoli, Haftar will have the power and military ability to shut down the sea routes used by the smuggler gangs to send migrants to Europe, and target their associates who run the southern routes into the country,” said Atallah.

Media exposure of the illegal trade of migrants in Libya, including undercover footage shown on CNN of African migrants being auctioned in a market, has caused international revulsion.

Italy is among the countries that suffered the worst impacts of migrants influx, and it had previously supported the GNA in Tripoli in countering illegal migration. However, with the LNA’s advances and the US’ political support for Haftar, Italy has developed a more diplomatic stance.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt met with Prime Minister of the GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj, on Thursday and called on “all sides” to commit to a ceasefire, in comments that lack direct condemnation of the LNA.

The UK Foreign Office has been reviewing its policy towards Haftar while maintaining its focus on improving human rights and support for the UN political process in Libya, a British diplomatic source said on condition of anonymity.

The GNA asked 40 foreign firms including French oil major Total to renew their licenses or have their operations suspended, pressuring Europe to stop the Haftar’s military offensive against Tripoli and choose sides.

Germany, which has invested millions of euros in recent months in Libya’s development and in support of GNA efforts, remains unconvinced by Haftar as a force for peace and human rights.

Haftar ignored a call by the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya for a ceasefire during Ramadan and called for an intensification of his assault on Tripoli instead.

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Last Update: 06:59 KSA 09:59 - GMT 06:59
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