Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—One year after Gen. Khalifa Haftar announced an operation to liberate Benghazi from the clutches of extremist groups, the city remains in chaos, with Haftar’s Libyan National Army failing to make inroads into the city which sparked the country’s revolution against longtime dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Locals speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat say the situation in Benghazi remains bleak, with basic supplies and provisions hard to come by and extremist groups still in control of large parts of the Mediterranean coastal city.
Haftar, who now heads the country’s beleaguered and undersupplied army, launched Operation Dignity, a ground and air offensive against the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, a coalition of Islamist extremist groups and former anti-Gaddafi militias attempting to gain control of the city, in May of 2014.
Six months later in November, Haftar vowed to retake the city “within three months,” and most recently in April gave himself a deadline of six days to liberate the city from extremist groups.
Sources close to the general, who was officially sworn in as Libya’s top military commander by the country’s internationally recognized parliament in Tobruk, say he was expecting to give a televised speech during this year’s Muslim holy month of Ramadan, due to fall on June 17, announcing the liberation of the city.
However, they say that announcement now seems unlikely.
As Haftar’s deadlines keep getting extended, local volunteer groups from the city have begun to arm themselves, capitalizing on the general state of choas in the country to obtain arms via a thriving black market.
One local fighter from the city told Asharq Al-Awsat local groups were now adamant the fight was theirs as they were sure no “rescue” would be forthcoming from Haftar’s forces.
Locals say fighting between the militants and Haftar’s forces have continued on the outskirts of the city on a daily basis, but it appears the Libyan National Army is still unable to make inroads into Benghazi, though there has been progress on the Western side of the city, some say.
Several hospitals in Benghazi are now almost completely closed down, some locals said, including the Hawari General Hospital, one of the city’s largest.
Fighting between different groups has also broken out inside the city itself, with several suicide bombings taking place in recent months and extremist groups rounding up and imprisoning dissenters.
Some residents have been forced to leave their homes and set up inside abandoned schools and other state buildings. Normal life in several parts of the city has almost come to a standstill and the humanitarian situation continues to worsen in many areas.
“There has definitely been an increase in the number of those imprisoned and in refugees fleeing their homes to schools and other government buildings, as well as hospitals and health centers closing down due to their being located in battle zones. This includes one of the largest hospitals in Benghazi, the Jumhuriya General Hospital, in the city’s east, which is specialized in providing natal services for pregnant women,” a local journalist, who requested anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat.
In a statement on Saturday the UN’s mission in Libya, UNSMIL, said eight children had been killed last week during artillery shelling residential areas in the city, though who was responsible for the attack remains unknown.
UNSMIL warned “all parties” in the conflict that such “attacks against civilians are prohibited under international humanitarian law and can constitute war crimes.”
The situation in Benghazi mirrors the rest of the country, which has been plunged into chaos since 2014, after Libya’s parliament in Tripoli, the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC), unilaterally extended its 18-month mandate by an additional year, eschewing elections results that brought a new parliament to power in June.
Haftar then ordered the GNC dissolve and he set up a rival parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk, the internationally recognized House of Representatives, in a bid to reflect the national vote and stop what he termed an Islamist takeover of the country.
But in July Libyan Dawn, a loose coalition of Islamist forces, took over Tripoli and reinstated the GNC.
Fierce battles have since raged between the Libyan National Army and the Islamists in Tripoli and Benghazi for control of Libya’s two largest cities.
But neither campaign is going as Haftar has planned. The situation in Libya as a whole has been complicated by the emergence of other groups on the scene, most notably affiliates of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who are gaining territory in the country.
In an interview with AFP in March, Haftar called on the international community to help the Libyan National Army defeat extremist groups in Benghazi and elsewhere in the country,
“No doubt the international community knows the depth of the crisis Libya is experiencing since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, with the absence of law, public order, and the rise of militant groups,” Haftar said.
He called on Western countries to lift an arms embargo on Libya enforced since the aftermath of the revolution in 2011, in order to boost his army’s capabilities.
Meanwhile, talks between the country’s two rival governments to form a unity coalition restarted last month in Morocco, with both sides saying they will submit an announcement to UN once an agreement has been reached.