Omar al-Hassi, the head of Libya's self-declared Islamist-backed government, speaks during a press conference on November 24 2014 in Tripoli, where he condemned an attack on Mitiga airport in an eastern suburb of Tripoli earlier in the day
Omar al-Hassi

The leader of Libya’s self-proclaimed Islamist-leaning government declared “war” on forces allied with the elected rival government in the eastern city of Tobruk late on Monday after an attack on the capital’s sole functioning airport.

Omar al-Hassi, anointed prime minister by remnants of the country’s defunct Islamist-controlled parliament in the capital Tripoli, announced a new phase of “war” and “confrontation” against the Tobruk-based parliament and armed forces allied with it, including the controversial Gen Khalifa Haftar.

In addition to taking parts of the major eastern city of Benghazi in recent weeks, Gen Haftar and allied local forces seized control of the strategic town of Kikla in the western mountains and bombed Mitiga airport, controlled by Islamist militias and fighters from the central city of Misurata. At least three civilians were injured in the airport attack, pro-Islamist television reported.

“The circumstances and events in Benghazi [some] days ago and Kikla yesterday and in Tripoli today, have forced our policy to be a policy of war and confrontation, and we are the ones who will win, God willing,” Mr Hassi said in a televised appearance.

Despite mediation attempts by the UN, Libya’s two camps have effectively been at war since Gen Haftar launched an air and ground assault on Islamist militias in Benghazi on May 16. But Mr Hassi’s thunderous declaration of war raises the stakes of the conflict which has already engulfed the oil-rich north African country’s heavily populated northwest, its major eastern cities and parts of the sparsely populated south.

Since the 2011 Nato-backed uprising that toppled Muammer Gaddafi, mediators have frequently been able to pull Libya’s squabbling militias and tribes back from the brink of all-out war. Mr Hassi’s declaration is likely to complicate such efforts. The escalating six-month conflict has alarmed Libya’s north African and Sahel neighbours and European countries across the Mediterranean. It has also paved the way for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaeda offshoot known as Isis, to carve out a presence in the country.

In his speech, Mr Hassi dismissed Bernardino Leon, the UN special envoy struggling to broker a compromise, as “not able to see reality” and spoke of dark conspiracies against his government, which seized control of the capital in August.

“We are now facing an enemy that has a lot of weapons and a lot of support from outside and we are facing several countries unfortunately, neighbouring and global, that are supporting it with weapons and experts,” he said, referring to strong support for the Tobruk government by Egypt and the UAE.

Mr Hassi and his Islamist and Misurata allies have failed to gain international recognition despite an ambiguous court order that they and some legal experts claim dissolves the elected government in Tobruk and places authority in their hands. In another blow, the UN Security Council last week blacklisted a key ally of the Hassi government, the militant group Ansar al-Sharia, as a terrorist organisation.

Mr Hassi late Monday announced the creation of new “crisis” cabinet and a “government of war against tyranny”.

Hours after the airport bombing, a court in Tripoli issued arrest warrants for Gen Haftar, a pro-Islamist TV channel reported.

Twitter: @borzou

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