The United Nations-backed government of Libya sought on Saturday to reassure its Western supporters by distancing itself from terrorists and extremists.
Some fighters with extremist ties or who have been targeted by United Nations sanctions have said this week that they were joining the Libyan government’s fight against an attack by a militia leader.
The militia leader, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, 75, has long portrayed himself as commanding a fight against terrorism as he has tried to establish himself as a new military ruler of Libya. He has promised an end to the mayhem of warring factions and fiefdoms that has followed the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi during the Arab Spring uprising of 2011.
But his critics say his often indiscriminate attacks have only ended up driving more mainstream opponents into alliances of desperation with militants and extremists.
That debate has now taken on new urgency because over the last nine days, General Hifter, who loosely controls much of eastern Libya, has begun a new attempt to take over the headquarters of the United Nations-backed government in the capital, Tripoli.
The government said Saturday it “strongly denies the allegations that among our ranks there are fighters who belong to terrorist organizations.”
Its main defenders have been powerful militias based in the nearby cities of Zintan and Misrata that led the fight to oust Colonel Qaddafi and are not considered extremists. Militias from Misrata had previously played the leading role in defeating the militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, after they had established a Libyan base.
But several fighters with extremist ties or under United Nations sanctions have also said they are joining the battle against General Hifter.
Among them is the warlord Salah Badi, who has previously allied with Islamist extremists and who is under United Nations sanctions for undermining stability. Also joining the fray is Brigade Defend Benghazi, which largely absorbed an earlier coalition that included a militia under United Nations sanctions as a terrorist organization.
The militia it included was Ansar al-Shariah, whose fighters played a major role in the attack on a United States diplomatic compound that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in 2012.
Ziad Bellam, a brigade leader who also fought against General Hifter in Benghazi, said in an online video last week that he was returning to the battle in Tripoli to avenge a deceased leader of Ansar al-Shariah and other comrades considered extremists.
Western governments have almost universally condemned General Hifter’s advance on the capital, which upended United Nations efforts to negotiate a solution to the Libyan fighting.
But the European Union said Thursday that its members “express their concern at the involvement of terrorist and criminal elements in the fighting, including individuals listed by the U.N. Security Council.”
The New York Times also reported on Friday about extremists and others under United Nations sanctions rushing into the fight against General Hifter.
In an apparent response to that report and the European Union, the government in Tripoli said Saturday that it “was and still is fighting terrorism and hunting down its remnants.”
The government argued on Saturday that it was General Hifter’s attack that had “opened the road to the reactivation of the terrorist sleeper cells that are waiting for the opportunity.”