BENGHAZI, Libya – A powerful Libyan general whose forces recently captured several key oil facilities has rejected a U.N.-brokered government and said the country would be better served by a leader with "high-level military experience."
In a series of written responses to questions from The Associated Press this week, Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter said his army only recognizes the authority of the Libyan parliament based in the east, which has also rejected the U.N.-backed government in the capital, Tripoli.
Libya was plunged into chaos by the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi, and for the last two years has been split by rival authorities based in the far east and in Tripoli, in the west.
The two sides are deeply divided on Hifter's future role in the country. In the east, he is seen as the kind of strong, experienced military leader who can defeat Islamic extremists and restore order to the oil-rich North African country. In the west, where powerful Islamist militias hold sway, he is seen as remnant of the Gadhafi government — which he once served — and an aspiring strongman.
Hifter said little to put such fears to rest.
He cited generals who went on to lead Western nations, as well as President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in neighboring Egypt, who led the military ouster of an elected Islamist president in 2013 and has presided over a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
"Military people who were elected to lead their country achieved remarkable success," Hifter said.
Asked if he intended to seek the highest office, Hifter demurred, saying the country first needed security, political and social stability, and that he would not answer the question until that was achieved.
The U.N.-backed government is led by a presidential council headed by Fayez Serraj, an independent technocrat. It was supposed to present a new Cabinet to parliament for approval after lawmakers rejected the last one in August, but has yet to do so.
Egypt has backed Hifter who, like el-Sissi, blames much of his country's problems on the Muslim Brotherhood group. He says Tripoli has been "hijacked" by armed gangs, blaming disorder there and the expansion of rogue militias on Islamist factions.
Hifter has also lashed out at U.N. envoy Martin Kobler, accusing him of "meddling" in Libyan affairs after he allegedly sought to set up a meeting between Hifter and Serraj to discuss the makeup of the Libyan army.
Both Hifter's troops and forces loyal to the U.N.-backed government are battling the Islamic State group and other extremists. Militias from the city of Misrata, in the west, have driven IS militants out of most of their last urban stronghold, Sirte, with the help of U.S. airstrikes.
But there are concerns that victory against IS could bring renewed conflict between east and west.
Earlier this month, Hifter's forces accused a militia from Misrata of carrying out an airstrike that killed at least six women and a child near Sirte. The Misratans denied the allegations.
Hifter's forces also recently seized three key oil terminals — at Ras Lanuf, al-Sidra and Zueitina — from a militia allied with the U.N.-backed government, drawing international condemnation. The U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain called on his forces to withdraw from the terminals, saying the Tripoli government is the "sole steward" of the resources and warning against "illicit oil exports."
Exports from the Ras Lanuf terminal have resumed, and Hifter said in the interview that he had returned them to the authority of the National Oil Corporation. Oil revenues are channeled to the central bank, which is under the authority of Tripoli. He also said he has no plans to withdraw from the area.
"The Libyan National Army's priorities are to protect the oil fields and ports of export," he said.
He also called on the U.N. to lift an embargo on weapons sales to Libya, and help it remove mines left in "huge quantities" by IS fighters in residential neighborhoods they have been driven from. He blamed authorities in the west for the rampant smuggling of migrants bound for Europe, which he blamed on the militias and the "absence of state authority."
Hifter returned to Libya after decades in exile during the 2011 uprising against Gadhafi. Hifter had played a key role in the 1969 coup that brought Gadhafi to power and eventually became his top general. He was captured during the 1980s war with Chad. After the war ended in 1987, he defected and eventually fled to the United States.
While living in exile in Virginia, he became commander of the armed wing of the Libyan National Salvation Front and orchestrated a couple of failed coup attempts against Gadhafi before breaking with the opposition group. In interviews with Arab media in the 1990s, he described himself as building an armed force with U.S. assistance to topple Gadhafi and his associates. A 1996 Congressional Research Service report suggested that the United States provided money and training to the National Salvation Front.
Hifter has long denied ever working for the CIA, but now he says he has proof.
"If I was working for U.S. intelligence they would be my first supporters with weapons and money," he said.
Rohan reported from Cairo.