Egypt and UAE behind Libyan air strikes, says US

Strikes failed to stop Islamist militias from capturing Tripoli

Tripoli airport, which was attacked in air strikes on Sunday.  Photograph: Reuters/Aimen Elsahli

Tripoli airport, which was attacked in air strikes on Sunday. Photograph: Reuters/Aimen Elsahli

Wed, Aug 27, 2014, 01:00

US officials have claimed the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were behind several air strikes on Islamist militias in Libya last week, in what would be an escalation of a regional power-play between Islamists and opposing governments across the Middle East.

UAE pilots flying out of Egyptian airbases allegedly twice targeted Islamist fighters vying to take control of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, last week, several US officials claimed to the New York Times, and later to the AFP news agency. Speaking to the Guardian, a US official confirmed the reports were plausible.

The air strikes failed to stop Islamist militias from capturing Tripoli later in the week, announcing a new breakaway regime and forcing Libya’s elected government to flee to the eastern city of Tobruk.

The strikes’ alleged origins suggest a block of Middle Eastern countries led by the UAE are seeking to escalate their opposition to the Islamist movements that have sought to undermine the region’s old order since the start of the Arab spring in 2011. During the summer, Egypt’s military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood – a major Islamist group – and has since been cracking down internally on its activities, a tactic pursued for years in the UAE.

Proxy war in Libya

If the US allegations are true, both countries now want to expand the campaign beyond their borders, seeking to curb the rise of Brotherhood-affiliated militias threatening to take over Libya. The move could turn Libya into a proxy war between the country’s elected government, backed by UAE and Egypt, and Islamists backed by Qatar, another Gulf state.

Yesterday, the US would not confirm the reports on the record. But Jen Psaki, a state department spokesman, criticised any external military intervention. “We believe outside interference exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition,” said Ms Psaki.

A senior Egyptian military source denied Egypt’s involvement, as did Egypt’s foreign ministry. “We already issued two statements on this,” said Badr Abdellatty, Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman, referring to comments made by the Egyptian government over the weekend. “That’s all we’re going to say.” In one of the statements, Egypt denied that “Egyptian military airplanes [had been] carrying out air strikes in areas controlled by armed militias in the Libyan capital Tripoli”. But the wording stopped short of denying any Egyptian involvement whatsoever.

When asked about the air strikes, a Libyan cabinet minister expressed surprise at the reports of their provenance, and said that Libya did not want direct military intervention. But Habib Amin, Libya’s culture minister, said the international community needed to provide more logistical and diplomatic support to his government.

“The international community until now has not been serious about helping the government, the legal authority in Libya, and the Libyan people,” said Mr Amin after discussing the Libyan civil war with Egyptian officials in Cairo.

“Libya is now in a civil war. And the international community is just watching. Tripoli is half-destroyed. Half of Benghazi is destroyed. What does the world want? To see the whole country destroyed?”

In an interview, Libya’s foreign minister, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, claimed his government did not want foreign military intervention. But he said Libya’s government, which has fled to the eastern city of Tobruk, is now unable to safeguard key state institutions by itself, and called for “arms and any other equipment that could ensure the possibility of protecting our strategic sites, our oil fields, our airports” against militias “who are now stronger than the government itself, and who do now possess arms even more sophisticated than the government itself”.

And while Mr Abdel Aziz ruled out requesting foreign air strikes against the insurgents in the short term, he hinted that they were a possibility should negotiations with the rebels fail. “Once we cannot achieve a serious or meaningful dialogue among all the factions, perhaps we can resort to other means afterwards,” said Mr Abdel Aziz, who was at a Cairo conference for regional foreign ministers about the future of Libya.

– (Guardian service)