By Lin Noueihed and Ghaith Shennib
Libya’s eastern military leader, Khalifa Haftar, returned home on Thursday after medical treatment in France, ending an absence that had raised the prospect of renewed turmoil in the OPEC member country.
Haftar, who controls the self-styled Libyan National Army, is the main power broker in the eastern region that’s home to much of the oil infrastructure. Through the LNA, Haftar wrested control of the east from militant movements, including Islamic State, and helped in the resumption of crude exports after disruptions hit Libya’s revenues.
He arrived in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, to a hero’s welcome. Television footage showed him stepping off the plane unassisted and greeting officials gathered to witness his arrival. “I want to assure you I am in good health,” he said in a televised speech, pledging to continue his political campaign.
Haftar, 75, has been one of the main forces opposing the internationally backed government in Tripoli that’s led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The general’s control over the east and its oil has also allowed him to influence the fate of a United Nations-backed plan to restore order.
The UN blueprint envisions the country and its two feuding administrations being reunited through votes for a new constitution and then president. Critics argue that rushing to the polls without a true reconciliation between east and west would make the situation worse. Violence that followed the last general election in 2014 triggered the split.
Supporters of Haftar, who served former dictator Moammar Qaddafi after assisting in the overthrow of King Idris in 1969, say he’s best qualified to lead Libya.
Reports of his ill health began to emerge more than two weeks ago, with rumors spreading online that he had suffered a stroke or even died. He arrived in Benghazi from Cairo.
— With assistance by Saleh Sarrar, and Tarek El-Tablawy