By Vanessa Tomassini.
Misurata — Tunis, 9 January 2021 — According to a United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) statement, the co-chairs of the Security Working Group (SWG) for Libya, represented by the African Union, France, Italy, Turkey, UNSMIL and the United Kingdom, held on Wednesday January 6th, a virtual meeting to discuss the security situation in Libya and ways to support the work of the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC). The Group renewed its call on all parties to accelerate the implementation of the ceasefire, particularly the opening of the Coastal Road between Abu Grein and Sirte, as well as the immediate repatriation of all foreign fighters and mercenaries. To understand the real situation on the ground, I reached on phone from Misrata the Brigadier General Al-Hadi Salem Idrah, official spokesman of the Liberation of Sirte and Jufra Operation Room.
Thank you for accepting this invitation Brigadier Idrah, please help me to introduce yourself.
“I am the Brigadier Elhadi Salem Idrah. I graduated from the Military College in the 1983. I was one of the firsts to participate in the revolution in 2011, I was also injured the same year. Then, I took part in the Bunyan al-Marsus operation against Daesh (ISIS). Now I am the official spokesman of the Liberation of Sirte and Jufra Operation Room. I live in Misrata, where also my family come from. During my free time, I am interested in sport. I follow athletics, and in particular, I am a fan of the Al-Sewehli Football Club of Misrata.”
According to the information in your possession, how is the Joint Military Committee (JMC 5+5) work progressing?
“We are so happy that the 5+5 military initiative started. What makes us happier is that nobody was able to reach an agreement as they did it. While so many politicians from long time cannot reach any deal, the Committee in a short time reached an agreement for a comprehensive ceasefire. As an army officer, I’m so proud that my colleagues in the army where able to do what politicians cannot. Unfortunately, we are so angry of Haftar militias are not applying to this agreement. After seventy days, they are still threatening and attacking us from time to time. They did not execute any point of the 5+5 JMC recommendations. The first article of the agreement provides that all the militias of Haftar must withdraw from the area; the second that all the mines are removed from the area; the last and most important article demand that all roads and land connections between the west and east of Libya are reopened. What we are looking for now is that UNSMIL and its Representative Stephanie Williams take action to make Haftar respect the deal, to helping us in implement it. Our last suggestion was that, if Haftar forces are not able to remove the mines in Sirte and Jufra areas, they can give us the map of the mines so that we can remove them to secure the connections between east and west of Libya. What make us suspicious about Haftar is that he is continuing gathering forces and threatening us despite the agreement. The United Nations, who facilitated the deal among the 5+5 officials, should make everything in its power to implement it”.
The UN Security Council started to discuss about an international mission to monitor the ceasefire. How do you see that possibility?
“We will be very happy with any UN initiative to guarantee the ceasefire. What we see now is that there are many talks, but no action on the ground. We are ready to cooperate with any international mission, but until now, there is nothing concrete”.
The JMC 5+5 decided also to reopen the Coastal Road connecting Tripoli to Misrata and Sirte. Is it open? And if it’s not, why?
“We are ready to reopen it. All our forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) are ready to reopen the road from Tripoli to Benghazi, but there are conditions that must be satisfied before. Step by step. We know the importance of the road reopening to release the suffering of Libyan people, traveling from east to west and vice versa, but first the mines must be removed from the road and its surroundings; second all militias, mercenaries, Janjaweed, and Wagner forces must leave the area. We cannot talk of reopening the road in today conditions. They have to give us the chance to reopen it. If we reopen it, nobody can contrast Haftar forces and the people security must be guaranteed. Haftar forces and mercenaries committed so many crimes against civilians living in the area of Sirte, including thefts and kidnappings”.
So, to make it clear: are you asking Haftar forces to withdraw from Sirte? Is it correct? And please don’t use the word militias because we do not want to incite hate-speech and division. Please, let’s use: Haftar’s forces.
“Yes, correct. Exactly they are Wagner forces and Janjaweed and Syrian militias… from many nationalities actually”.
How many Syrian elements are supporting Haftar’s forces, where they are and what are they doing?
“All the Wagner mercenaries and foreign forces from many nationalities are spreading in all the area under their control. In Sirte, Brega, Hon, Jufra… We do not have a specific number but there are too many. They are coming from Ladikia, Syria, to Benina Airport. So, what they are transporting from Ladikia to Benghazi? The only thing they can move from there is mercenaries and militias. What do you think of flights arriving from Ladikia? Are they bringing toys, papers or flowers? That make us very suspicious. As long these forces are gathering, we must be very careful and demand for the UN to intervene to make respect the ceasefire’s agreement.”
Is Russia moving or has installed also Defense systems or military equipment? Because this I think can be dangerous also for Europe if for example Russia has missiles there…
“They are controlling the Gardabiya airbase, which is so close to Europe and the Mediterranean. They are carrying weapons, light and medium artillery, air crafts, missiles, and drones. They have done so many manoeuvres with Mig.29’s and this is really dangerous for the safety of Libyan people and other populations in the Mediterranean. Russia dreams to control the Middle East and now is very close to Europe. Haftar give them the possibility to reach the power. We cannot say that only the Wagner group is involved in Libya, we are talking of Russian Army. That is camouflaged by Wagner mercenaries. What make us say that is the presence of so many weapons and equipment.”
Are there other countries that you consider hostile because of their support to Khalifa Haftar?
“During the war, started in April 2019, after liberating many cities like Gharyan, we found weapons belonging to Russia, France, and Egypt. We found Russian weapons belonging to the United Arab Emirates. All this mean that these countries are directly involved in the Libyan conflict along with Khalifa Haftar’s forces.”
The Turkish support on your side was decisive to stop Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli. How many Syrian fighters under coordination of the Turkish Army are today present in the Sirte and Al-Jufra area?
“I challenge you to come in Misrata and in the area controlled by the Sirte-Jufra Liberation Operation Room. In this area you are allowed, or anyone, come and see: there are no foreign forces, only Libyans and in particular from Misrata. All this area is under our control. That is a challenge for you or anyone! I said that in many TVs and live broadcastings: Haftar come to see with your eyes!”.
I don’t have any reason to doubt on what you are telling me. So, where are now the Syrian fighters? Are they in Tripoli or they already left Libya?
“Why are we talking about Turkey? Haftar was attacking us with the support of six countries France, Egypt, the UAE, Russia, Sudan and Chad; why you are inquiring us for an official convention between our legitimate Government and Turkey? We are open to other official alliances, also with European countries. If Italy or any other European country wants to help us to reach a stability in Libya, we are ready to sign official agreements, not under the table! Six countries were threatening us in Tripoli, so we were forced to make alliance with Turkey, but we did it in an official way.”
AFRICOM in one of its latest reports affirms that Italy in 2019 was providing the GNA with military and intelligence information. In what it consists this Italian support exactly? And do you think the support is enough or you expect more from my Country?
“Italy was with us during the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsus operation against Isis in 2016. It was a really good and genuine cooperation. But unfortunately, now, Italy is not giving us enough support. The role of Italy should be more effective and decisive. We don’t deny that Rome is providing us with intelligence information, but military, it should play a more decisive role. In the past, it was hesitating on what to do, but now I can see Italy is supporting us more and more”.
Let’s make a step back. Which forces are part of the Liberation of Sirte and Jufra Operation Room? How many you are? And which institution or Ministry you are affiliated with?
“We are the real Libyan Army and we are following the Supreme Commander of the Libyan Army, President Fayez al-Serraj, and the chief of the army Com. Mohammed Al-Haddad. I cannot tell you the exact number because it’s a confidential military information. Some pro-Haftar media, and maybe you also, accuse us to be terrorists and militias, but everybody know that we were fighting Isis in Sirte”.
I don’t know what other media says, but from my side I never said something like that. When I was in Tripoli war, there were some problems and I reported the situation for how it was. But I want to make it clear that I never said that you or General Mohammed Al-Haddad are terrorists, maximum respect for you and for him.
“That’s clear, thank you.”
As you are saying that, I want to give you the opportunity to clarify something: recently, there were reports affirming that Salah Badi battalion refused to withdraw from the Sirte’s area to allow the reopening of the Coastal Road. Is it true?
“Salah Badi is not a member of the Libyan army anymore. He is out of Sirte now and he doesn’t have anything to do with the Coastal Road reopening. I stress that he has no relationship with us. We have to say the true: we are ready to reopen the road and no one can affect our decision, if foreign forces withdraw as we said, we are ready to reopen the road tomorrow.”
Would you like to add something to my questions?
“Yes, I have a question for you. I noticed that you use the title ‘Libyan National Army’ in some of your reports referring to Haftar’s forces. How comes this? You know the reality; you are so close to Libyans. How comes that a Libyan National Army, as you call it, killed more than ten thousand people civilians? How it can destroy 16 ambulances? How comes this, can you explain me that?”.
I have big respect for you as for the Eastern army. Because we can say whatever we want but these guys calling themselves Libyan National Army, they defeated Daesh and Al-Qaeda in Benghazi, Derna, and Eastern Libya. I saw the results of this war. As well they liberated many cities from criminality and extremism, also in Southern Libya. The fact that I call it Libyan National Army is to respect those martyrs and young guys who are fighting for that cause, to defeat terrorism in their city. I think we should recognize that, as we recognize that you -the Al-Bunyian Al Marsus forces — have defeated Isis in Sirte and Misrata. I strongly believe that if you are alone, only Libyans without foreign interference, you can reach a solution and solve the problems of the Libyan people. Only together you can prevent other countries to come into Libya to do their interests. When I use the term “LNA” is not to respect Khalifa Haftar, as I don’t care to respect Fayez al-Serraj. Presidents and Generals go, but the people will stay. I wish you can work all together to secure your borders, to reach stability and peace for the Libyan people because you are there to serve them. We can’t say the entire LNA is a militia. Of course, there are problems like the groups from Tarhouna. But the same groups were before affiliated to the GNA. It is too easy to change jackets and say ‘we are the army now’. There are problems that you can solve only by yourself…together.