CAIRO (AP) — A renegade general leading a week-long military campaign in Libya against Islamists dominating the country's political scene urged Thursday for a "war against terrorism," vowing to keep up his offensive until he purges his nation of militants.
Gen. Khalifa Hifter told The Associated Press that he doesn't seek power for himself but a new, democratically elected leadership for Libya, and a strong military that will act as a "safety valve" against corrupt leaders.
"We are in a mission of fighting a war against terrorism, against terrorists and al-Qaida groups," he said. "The world must take part in it" and back us.
Hifter also claimed he had more than 75 percent of Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, under his control and that he is allegedly also getting help from moderate Islamists who were breaking away from their militias and joining his forces. The eastern city was the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The 70-year-old Hifter spoke to the AP over Skype from near Benghazi, from where he has been leading an armed revolt since last Friday in what has perhaps been the biggest challenge yet to Libya's weak central government and fledgling security forces.
Hifter has dubbed his offensive "Operation Dignity," saying it is aimed at breaking both Islamic militias and their supporting political factions dominating the parliament, already weakened by constant street protests by Libyans demanding its disbandment.
Backed by military jets flown by pilots who sided with him, his forces have been bombing the outskirts of Benghazi since Friday, forcing militias to withdraw from their compounds, Hifter's spokesman Mohammed Hegazi said. Dozens were killed in the clashes, many from among Hifter's forces.
On Sunday, militiamen allied with Hifter stormed and ransacked the parliament while the general's forces declared the body suspended. On Wednesday, he called for the formation of a Presidential Council to take over from parliament, oversee elections and hand power after a nationwide vote to a new legislature.
Earlier Thursday, Islamist-led militias streamed into Tripoli, called in by the parliament, to defend the city against Hifter's campaign. The Islamist-dominated legislature has described Hifter's campaign as a coup, while the government appears split on the issue.
The militias, known as Libya Central Shield, are composed of groups from the western city of Misrata. They are under the command of the country's chief of staff, who answers to parliament.
Reflecting Libya's deep divisions, the government condemned the parliament's move to deploy militias, saying this only "endangers the city and the safety of its residents."
Hifter holds a special grudge against the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the biggest political blocs in parliament, accusing them of financing and supporting Islamist militias. He said he thinks there are between 5,000 and 10,000 armed extremists in Libya.
"This is not one operation," he said. "There will be several operations and we will not end until we rid the country of all terrorists and militants."
Hifter's campaign, while plunging Libya deeper into uncertainty, has also been winning support from several prominent government officials, diplomats, and military units who have sided with him against Islamists — both among the militias and in parliament.
Hifter was formerly the army chief under Gadhafi, who was toppled and slain in the 2011 civil war. After turning against his leader, he was sentenced to death in absentia for orchestrating a failed coup. He lived in exile in Virginia and returned to fight alongside the rebels battling to topple the strongman.
Following the end of the civil war, Libya — and Benghazi in particular — have sunk into lawlessness and chaos. On Sept. 11, 2012, the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi came under attack by Islamist miiltias, leaving four Americans dead, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens
Hifter has re-emerged on the political scene now, presenting himself as Libya's potential savior after nearly two years of chaos in which unruly militias are exercising power over elected officials and assassinating dozens of soldiers and police.
He spoke to the AP a day after he laid out a road map for transitional period in which he called for the country's top judicial authorities to form a new presidential council to take over power until holding new parliamentary elections.
Hifter insisted he doesn't seek power for himself but believes a "transitional period," under a new presidential council, could take up to a year, until Libya gets a new leadership.
"If we wanted power, nothing would prevent us. But we want a civilian state," he said, speaking of his campaign.
Meanwhile, the army Hifter envisions would act as a "safety valve" for the nation, he said.
"The military has received painful strikes over the past decades under Gadhafi and during the uprising," Hifter said. "Bringing it together will be a difficult mission."
Hifter helped Gadhafi in the 1969 coup against the Libyan monarchy by taking control over Tripoli's Matiga air base. He then rose through the ranks of the Libyan army until he was named the military chief, and led Libyan forces that fought alongside Egyptian forces in the 1973 Arab war against Israel.
Associated Press writer Esam Mohamed contributed to this report from Tripoli, Libya.