By Steve Holland
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – The White House said on Friday that President Donald Trump spoke by phone earlier in the week and discussed “ongoing counterterrorism efforts” with Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, leader of a military assault on the capital Tripoli in opposition to the internationally recognized government.
In Libya on Friday, two children were killed by shelling in the southern Tripoli suburb of Qaser Ben Ghasher, residents said. Officials could not immediately reached for comment.
A White House statement said that in the phone call on Monday, Trump “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system”.
It was unclear why the White House waited several days to announce the phone call. Europe and the Gulf have been divided over a push by Haftar’s forces to seize Tripoli.
Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said “a military solution is not what Libya needs.” He said he supported Haftar’s “role in counterterroism” and that Washington needed Haftar’s “support in building democratic stability there in the region.”
Asked whether Trump contacted him before calling Haftar, Shanahan said the Pentagon and the White House “are well-aligned on Libya.”
At least seven people had been killed as of Tuesday, a day after Trump’s call to Haftar. The current death toll is not known.
At least 2,000 people protested on Tripoli’s central Martyrs’ Square on Friday against Haftar and his offensive. Some protesters criticized Trump’s call to the commander.
“The call has no meaning but we will respond to it,” said Abdelrizaq Musheirib, a protester.
Ahmed Mismari, spokesman for Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), said Trump’s call showed the pivotal role of the LNA in fighting terrorism, Sky News Arabia reported.
On Thursday, both the United States and Russia said they could not support a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya at this time.
Also on Thursday, mortar bombs crashed down on a suburb of Tripoli, almost hitting a clinic, after two weeks of an offensive by Haftar’s eastern troops on the capital.
Russia objects to the British-drafted resolution blaming Haftar for the latest flare-up in violence when his LNA advanced to the outskirts of Tripoli earlier this month, diplomats said.
The United States did not give a reason for its decision not to support the draft resolution, which would also call on countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure compliance and for unconditional humanitarian aid access in Libya. The country has been gripped by anarchy since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.
White House national security adviser John Bolton also spoke recently to Haftar.
Jalel Harchaoui, research fellow at the Clingendael Institute international relations think-tank in The Hague, said the Trump phone call was tantamount to supporting Haftar’s operation and thus creates “an environment where a military intervention by foreign states, like Egypt, is likelier”.
“One reason behind Trump’s phone call is that Haftar’s army has revealed itself less powerful than the Libyan strongman had claimed,” Harchaoui said.
Haftar was among officers who helped Gaddafi rise to power in 1969 but fell out with him during Libya’s war with Chad in the 1980s. Haftar was taken prisoner by the Chadians and had to be rescued by the CIA after having worked from Chad to overthrow Gaddafi.
He lived for around 20 years in the U.S. state of Virginia before returning home in 2011 to join other rebels in the uprising that ousted Gaddafi.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washinton, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi and Ulf Laessing, Ahmed Elumami and Hani Amara in Tripoli and Hesham Hajali in Cairo; Editing by David Gregorio and Gareth Jones)