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'He's no Abraham Lincoln': UN's Libya envoy warns against backing Haftar

Ghassan Salame says eastern commander besieging Tripoli is 'no big democrat' and governs with an 'iron fist'
Haftar's mounted an offensive on Tripoli three weeks ago but has failed to breach defences in the capital's south (AFP)

The United Nations envoy for Libya has warned countries tempted to continue backing eastern commander Khalifa Haftar that he is no democrat and his political agenda was not supported by most Libyans.

Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), which is allied to a rival administration in eastern Libya, mounted an offensive on Tripoli, seat of the internationally recognised government, three weeks ago but has failed to breach defences in the capital's south despite heavy fighting.

The battle for the city has all but wrecked UN-backed efforts for a peace deal between the rival factions and threatened to further disrupt OPEC member Libya's oil industry.

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"He is no Abraham Lincoln, he is no big democrat, but he has qualities and wants to unify the country," Ghassan Salame told France Inter radio during a visit to Paris on Monday.

"But how is he going to do it? Seeing him act, we can be worried about his methods because where he is governing, he doesn't govern softly, but with an iron fist."

Salame, whose tone on Haftar appeared tougher than previously, is touring European capitals to try to secure a consensus for a ceasefire and a return to peace talks as Western and Arab countries remain divided over how to tackle Libya.

The envoy was in France after visiting Italy, Libya's former colonial ruler, and said Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had told him Paris was fully behind his efforts for a ceasefire.

Playing both sides

France has along with the United States been accused in Tripoli of playing both sides since Haftar launched his offensive. 

Paris has supported Haftar in his efforts to fight militants in Libya in the past, while at the same time officially backing the UN-recognised government.

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France was criticsed by analysts and diplomats earlier this month after blocking an European Union communique that it deemed was too one-sided against Haftar. 

The statement was eventually approved after additions and a rewording of the text, although it remained critical of Haftar's advance, the Reuters news agency reported.

"I'm suffering from a very deep division at the UN Security Council that prevented a British draft to pass a resolution to stop the firing," Salame said, referring to a resolution blocked last week by Russia and the US.

"The temptation of the strongman is widespread.

"The problem is that the strongman is perhaps not as strong as he seems and that's the dilemma for those who support him."

Largest oilfield attacked

Haftar's opponents in Libya see him as a budding new autocrat in the mould of Muammar Gaddafi, the longtime leader who Haftar served under and who was toppled by a NATO-backed uprising in 2011.

The former general, who has seized much of the country's east from various militias, is backed by several countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

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"We cannot ignore the General Haftar phenomenon, but one must not go so far as to adopt his political project entirely because his political project is a project which does not suit a good part of the Libyan population," Salame said.

Meanwhile, an armed group attacked Libya's largest oilfield on Monday, but was repelled after clashes with its protection force, as fighting escalated in Haftar's effort to capture Tripoli.

The state oil company, National Oil Corporation (NOC), said unknown gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a control station of the El Sharara oilfield.

Guards at the site eventually repelled the attackers, an oil engineer there told Reuters.

There were no casualties among oil workers and production was unaffected, the NOC said in a statement.

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