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Trump talks to Haftar on phone, Libyans protest against foreign intervention

Libyan women and children hold up protest signs as they gather during a demonstration against Khalifa Haftar in the capital Tripoli on April 19, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

Thousands of people have taken to streets in the Libyan capital against US President Donald Trump, who branded self-styled commander Khalifa Haftar's offensive in Tripoli as a "war against terrorism.”

At least 2,000 people protested in Tripoli's central Martyrs' Square on Friday, carrying signs against the interference of foreign countries in Libyan affairs.

The protest came after the White House revealed in a statement on Friday that Trump had personally discussed the situation in Tripoli with Haftar on phone earlier this week.

Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive early this month against Tripoli to unseat the internationally-recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.

The attack has prompted intense fighting between Haftar’s forces and those loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA), threatening to push the country into a fully-grown civil war.

The fighting has killed more than 200 people and left 614 others wounded, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).  

The White House statement said Trump "recognized Field Marshal Haftar's significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources.”

The LNA has almost two-thirds of the country and all oilfields under its control, and some observers see the West's urge to court Haftar driven by their thirst for Libya's oil.  

This is while the United Nations has characterized Haftar’s push on Tripoli as an attempted coup and warned of a serious upshot. 

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan said Friday he supported Haftar's "role in counterterrorism", saying Washington needed his "support in building democratic stability there in the region."

A research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, an international relations think tank in the Hague, said the Trump conversation with Haftar was tantamount to supporting his operation.

The conversation creates "an environment where a military intervention by foreign states, like Egypt, is likelier,” he said. 

“One reason behind Trump’s phone call is that Haftar’s army has revealed itself less powerful than the Libyan strongman had claimed," said Jalel Harchaoui.

Haftar, who was among the officers who helped former dictator Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969, lived for some 20 years in the US state of Virginia.

He later returned to Libya in 2011 to join an uprising and a NATO military intervention which ousted Gaddafi. The country has since been the scene of increasing violence.

France, which also supports Haftar, played the leading role in the military campaign by NATO. 

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also supported Haftar's offensive against Tripoli's UN-recognized government. 

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