Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—“Benghazi has not and will not fall into the hands of the extremists,” Libyan National Army spokesman Col. Mohamed Al-Hejazi said after Libyan Islamist militant group Ansar Al-Sharia announced an “Islamic emirate” in the eastern city.
In exclusive comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, Hejazi said: “[Libyan National Army commander] Gen. Khalifa Haftar is present in Benghazi and is in good health and our morale is high. He is leading the battle and organizing our ranks for a major military operation to eliminate these terrorist extremist groups.”
The Libyan National Army spokesman’s comments come after local reports claimed that Haftar had fled Benghazi for Cairo after his operations center in Benghazi had come under attack. Haftar, whose self-proclaimed Libyan National Army is seeking to “purge” Islamist militias from Libya, previously announced a military coup against the Islamist-led central government.
“Our military operations are ongoing and will not stop until we have arrested the last extremist criminal. We do not want to specify a precise date or time, but we are preparing to launch a new major offensive within the coming days of week,” Hejazi added.
Islamist militants claimed to have taken control of the city earlier this week, overrunning army barracks and reportedly seizing heavy weapons.
There have also been reports of conflict within the Libyan National Army forces between General Haftar and Col. Wanis Bukhamada, who commands the Libyan army’s Special Forces that defected to join Haftar’s forces. The Special Forces withdrew from their base in Benghazi, with some media outlets putting this down to friction within the Libyan National Army command structure.
However, Hejazi denied that there was any conflict between the two military officials, saying: “There are no problems [between them]. These claims are part of the media war that is being waged against the Libyan National Army. Gen. Haftar meets with all the commanders to consult on the military plan of action, and particularly Col. Bukhamada.”
The Libyan National Army spokesman portrayed the Special Forces withdrawal as part of “military strategy,” adding that this was an attempt to confuse “foreign intelligence agencies” regarding the inner workings of Haftar’s forces.
He added that the Libyan National Army is committed to “purging” the Islamist militias from Libya, adding that these groups include fighters from Egypt, Algeria, Palestine and elsewhere.
“There have been Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters who fought in Syria who are now fighting against us. They include Egyptian and Algerian nationals,” he said.