Middle East Eye has obtained air traffic recordings that revealed a multinational military operation involving British, French and US forces is coordinating air strikes in support of General Khalifa Haftar battling Islamist militia groups from a base near Benghazi in eastern Libya.
Earlier reports suggested the presence of an international operations centre that is assisting Gen. Haftar in his campaign to gain eastern Libya from groups he has declared to be “extremist”.
The new leaked tapes obtained by Middle East Eye confirmed the previous reports. The recorded tapes reached to MEE from the Benina air base, which is considered to be Haftar’s most important military facility.The tapes showed at least one air strike that was heard being coordinated, which total just under an hour in length, suggesting the operations room is not simply being used for reconnaissance, reported MEE.
In fact, Gen.Haftar has been fighting some groups that have taken part in the western-backed campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) group.The leaks could prove a failure to the international parties involved especially after the formation of the UN backed unity government known as the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli . The GNA has been striving to gain the support of Tobruk house of representative known for its support to Haftar.
In the same context, this leaked tape reveals a harsh violation to the UN arm embargo imposed on Libya. Last month, the UN Security Council authorized the EU naval force to enforce the arms embargo on Libya by intercepting ships suspected of carrying weapons.
The arms embargo was imposed on Libya in 2011, but UN sanctions monitors have reported shipments from Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan to various factions.
One of those factions is led by Haftar, to whom the EU has previously threatened to extend sanctions for undermining the UN-backed Libyan government. However the leaked tapes infer that some western countries have hidden agendas in Libys away from the UN umbrella.
This indicates Haftar’s confidence when his spokesman said before “The sanctions are meaningless.” He added, “At the moment we have only heard reports in the media and have had no formal message.”
Middle East Eye also revealed in March that British SAS soldiers, supported by Jordanian forces, are already operating in Libya against IS militants.
According to MEE report, “The leaked tapes feature pilots and air traffic controllers speaking in both Arabic and English. British, American, French and Italian accents can be heard.”
“Benghazi, good morning, Ascot 9908,” a man with a British accent is heard saying. “Ascot 9908, just letting you know we are in contact with Benghazi airfield.”
The call sign Ascot 9908 came up repeatedly in the recordings. Later on the man was heard saying: “Ascot 9908 with you again from Benina, we’re looking to pick up a flight plan route from Lima Golf Sierra Alpha.”
“That’s Ascot 9908, we are complete at Benina and next destination is Lima Golf Sierra Alpha,” the same man said before ending the conversation and continuing with his mission.
The speakers in the tapes where talking in French and Italian accents seemed to spend most of the recordings directing air traffic from the control room.
“Pilots with American accents also featured prominently. Their two key call signs were Bronco 71 and Mustang 99 – the names of classic American cars,” reported the MEE.
Many of the files sound like routine air traffic control room communications – a plethora of numbers, call signs, complaints about malfunctioning radios, and back-and-forth confirmations.
“Sorry about the trouble, sir, our radios are not working well,” a voice, presumed to be an American pilot, said. “Control, Mustang 99 is departing your airspace to the northeast, apologies once again for our radios and good evening.”
Moreover, a number of voices were also heard on the leaked files speaking in Arabic.
The first target has been interacted with an Arabic-speaking pilot is heard saying. “The target was in Souq al-Hout, or the Fish Market.”
Libya’s specialist Mattia Toaldo-a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations- said,“It’s a famous neighborhood in Benghazi.”
“It’s one of the neighborhoods close to the sea. It was crucial during the 2011 fighting (against former leader Muammar Gaddafi ) and then it’s been one of the main areas of fighting between Haftar and the Islamist forces since 2014.Gen. Haftar is fighting in Souq al-Hout a group called the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR), an amalgamation of several Islamist and militant groups.
The group’s makeup is complicated and contradictory but crucially, the SCBR does not include or align itself with IS.
The coalition also includes Ansar al-Sharia, which is labelled as a terrorist organisation by the UN, the US, the UK and Turkey. But it also includes the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, which is not considered a terrorist organisation, and is reportedly funded by the Libyan Defence Ministry in Tripoli.
The Arabic speaking pilot is heard saying as he flew over Souq al-Hout,“We have interacted with the second target and we’re going onto the third target, God willing.”
Air traffic control then responds and urges him to “go ahead”.
“We have interacted with the third target,” the pilot then said.
“At another point in the leaked tapes, an air traffic controller admonishes an Arabic-speaking pilot for unloading one of his two bombs early. Later on, a pilot asks the operations room to check if one of his bombs had exploded,” said the MEE.
It seems that General Haftar is neither fighting ISIS nor IS aligned as he has always claimed, but is not new considering his actions in Derna, a town east of Benghazi.
Haftar was a key military figure in Gaddafi’s army but was then exiled to the US and returned during the 2011 revolution to try and oust the long-time leader. He has been accused of having links to the CIA, of having presidential ambitions and, according to the Economist , is “often considered a spoiler of efforts to unify the country.”
His role in any national military force, as minister of defence or an army commander, has been one of the most contentious issues in attempts to achieve unity.
Western support has only emboldened the renegade general to the detriment of attempts to unify the chaotic North African country, Toaldo told MEE.
He said, “Support by western special forces, particularly French, to General Haftar has made it more difficult to reach a compromise with him because he thinks he has important external backing and therefore does not need to compromise with the unity government.”
Gen. Haftar launched Operation Dignity centred primarily around Benghazi two years ago. He subsequently allied with the eastern Tobruk-based government but despite his claims to have “liberated” Benghazi earlier in 2016, violence has continued to rage.
However, since ISIS expanded in Libya at Sirte turning Gaddafi’s home city into a training camp for its militants , Haftar appears to have exploited IS to secure foreign backing.
In fact, Gen. Haftar has been supported by foreign countries since Operation Dignity. There were numerous reports showing that the General has received support from foreign powers, notably Egypt and the UAE, who have been thought to be behind night-time air strikes on sites controlled by Islamist-aligned forces.
MEE pointed to Haftar statement when acknowledged that his forces had received support from foreign powers in a 20-minute interview with the BBC.
Toaldo said, “IS in Benghazi had a hard time in the past few months but we should not take the lesson that we should support Haftar.” “It’s mostly because of the external support that Haftar forces got that IS in Benghazi have had a hard time, but on the other hand it’s because of the split between IS and the Benghazi revolutionary council.”
This time last year, ISIS was expelled at the eastern coastal city of Derna by the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, another Islamist group. But Haftar has been fighting his own war against the same group that pushed ISIS out of Derna.
While the UN-backed government has been busy trying to clear ISIS out of their Libyan stronghold of Sirte in recent months.
The UN Support Mission in Libya condemned Haftar’s airstrikes on Derna and warned that the resulting civilian casualties could constitute a war crime.
Toaldo said,“It’s not new in its strategy because basically he doesn’t want to have any rivals in the east and he considers everyone, even loosely associated with political Islam, as terrorists.” “Much like his Egyptian patrons.”
Speaking about the long-term consequences of the leak, Toaldo said: “I think that it changes things more in Europe than in Libya because it’s more difficult for the French government to deny any involvement in Benghazi,” reported the MEE.
It seems like a double standard policy, Toaldo said,“It will have to explain why it’s supporting the unity government with a lot of diplomatic effort, while its military forces are supporting the rival of that government.”
A British Ministry of Defense spokesman said: “As we have said before, the RAF regularly facilitates visits by diplomatic and military advisers to Libya.”
The British MoD spokesman also said that they do not comment on leaked documents, offer running commentary on flights for security reasons, and did not conduct air strikes over Libya.
In the same context,the French Ministry of Defence also refused to comment.
The war in Libya doesn’t seem will be resolved in the short term as long as some western countries are following a double standard policy with hidden agendas . It is not the matter of politics or governing as stated by the UN or its backed government but it is a matter of overlapping interests and struggle of power.