Libya's Haftar Comments on Tripoli's Offensive, Oil: Transcript

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(Bloomberg) -- Libya’s eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar commented on his offensive to capture the capital, the future of oil exports and attempts to end the nation’s crisis peacefully in written answers to questions sent by Bloomberg News.

Following is the full transcript of the interview:

Bloomberg: Will the army’s command continue to secure oil fields against any acts of sabotage and calls for production to stop?

Field Marshal Haftar: The national army’s soldiers and officers have sacrificed their lives to liberate and protect oil ports, so how would we allow any sabotage? The wealth and institutions of Libyans will be protected with our lives, there is no question about it. The Libyan National Army has proved in all of the battles how extremely careful it’s been to ensure the security of oil installations and not interfere in running them. The Libyan people know this well.

Whoever is seeking to sabotage the installations and hurt the livelihood of Libyans will be dealt with severely and the army will stand in their way. This is our patriotic duty and we’re well aware of its weight and it’s not up for negotiations.

Bloomberg: The head of the National Oil Corp. accuses the army of using oil airports for military purposes, what’s your answer?

Haftar: I am answering you, not him. We didn’t need the oil airports so we didn’t use them for the military so far. But if we need to -- and it’s unlikely -- we won’t hesitate. We are in a state of general mobilization and all of the state’s capabilities are at the disposal of the armed forces.

Bloomberg: Do you have any role in trying to convince OPEC or the United Nations to export oil through the national company based in Benghazi under the supervision of the army?

Haftar: This is not a matter for the army. More importantly, the national company should live up to its name, working only for the benefit of Libyans, not under the control of any hegemony or foreign interventions, and for it to be devoid of any appearance of corruption. The company should not avail its capabilities to the service of terrorists and armed militias, and to avoid working against the army. It should only carry out the role mandated by law with all honesty. It should be accountable and under supervision. This is the basis of the oil sector. Anything else is just appearances.

Oil is a vital sector that touches the livelihoods of Libyans. Its proceeds should be distributed through a just system that can benefit all Libyans equally. Manipulating it or using it for political purposes to serve certain parties is a violation that can’t be left unanswered. This is a public-sector company owned by all Libyans. It’s not a private company.

Bloomberg: There was talk about the army selling oil illegally before. Did you do this?

Haftar: The army is not a trader. The army is a regular defense force protecting the homeland. It doesn’t sell oil, neither legally or illegally. Selling oil is exclusively the work of the National Oil Corp., which the army addressed to take up its responsibilities in running and operating the ports and exporting oil in the same statement that we announced liberating the oil ports in September 2016 from criminal, terrorist gangs who were blocking its export and smuggling it for their own private benefit.

The main issue about oil is the just distribution of its proceeds equally among Libyans. It should not be employed to support terrorist organizations and armed militias. The oil sector should also be devoid of any corruption. This is where the attention should be.

The selling of oil is governed by laws and legislation.

Bloomberg: Has pulling out of Gharyan affected the army’s operations to move toward the capital?

Haftar: Advancing toward the capital is based on a comprehensive military operation and doesn’t rely on one certain positioning.

Pulling out of certain positions -- regardless of the reason -- is in our military calculations from the beginning. A military withdrawal is part of fighting and an essential component of the plan of any battle. It doesn’t affect the entire operation because it’s part of military planning to begin with. The leadership that doesn’t put withdrawal under its consideration, and doesn’t plan for it for an emergency or to reinforce the positions of its forces and re-organize them or any other reason, is a failed leadership par excellence.

A withdrawal doesn’t at all mean losing and it doesn’t mean backing away from achieving the target of the battle. The army that doesn’t know how to pull back has nothing but defeat. Advancing toward the capital is first and foremost subject to the safety of citizens, their property and possessions and the city’s institutions. It’s not subject to a technical withdrawal from one position to the other.

This is what we have as our top priority, and will be clear to you when when orders are given to advance toward the heart of the capital and control it. This will happen soon, God willing.

Bloomberg: Media reports suggested that Tripoli’s General National Accord forces found U.S.-made weapons and ammunition in your positions in Gharyan. How do you respond to this?

Haftar: This is nonsense. We don’t own any American weapons and we didn’t strike any weapons deal with the United States, and the entire world knows that the United States is one of the strictest countries in imposing the arms embargo so how can it be believed that it’s exporting weapons to us.

Even the countries that buy weapons from the United States can never give it to us because they will come under international condemnation and it will harm their ties with the U.S. In addition, the Libyan army hasn’t received any training on U.S.-made weapons even under the previous regime. So how can we get American weapons? These militias think they will achieve victories with these claims and harm us, while we achieve victories in the field and not through telling lies in the media.

Bloomberg: What does the army’s command say about Turkey’s threat to target your forces?

Haftar: I don’t follow what Turkey’s foreign minister says because our time is precious, and our people are waiting for the announcement that Tripoli has been liberated from terrorism. We are going ahead with our struggle regardless of any political statements here and there. What we care about is our relationship with the Turkish people, and we respect them. And in any case, if this was true, the interim government has a foreign ministry that can answer if deemed necessary. We won’t respond through the media.

Bloomberg: It’s been 80 days since the army’s advance toward Tripoli and still the fighting is at the outskirts of the capital. What’s delaying the army’s advance and do you have a plan to do so soon? Do you have a time frame for the operation?

Haftar: Many people superficially say that the national army was relying in its plan on liberating the capital in days or hours but failed to do so. This is nonsense that can only come from someone who is ignorant and doesn’t understand the lessons presented by the national army in military planning. We all understand the situation in Tripoli from all sides and we know the positions of the terrorist groups, their leaderships, movements and communications, their ammunition depots, backup, fighting capabilities and other accurate information using our professional intelligence-gathering methods.

We also understand the great precautions needed to ensure the safety of innocent civilians first, and for the city’s institutions and installation to avoid destruction. If we didn’t put this into consideration we would have been done with a sudden storming of the capital in less than 24 hours. We take these precautions out of patriotic duty and not in response to any pressure because the operation itself is to protect the citizens, their freedom and dignity. We can’t accept for the citizens to become the victims. You won’t find anyone more careful about this than the national army.

The various forces of terrorism and the armed militias didn’t spring up overnight to be wiped out in hours. They took years to form, expand their influence and tighten their grip on the capital, in addition to bringing in weapons and money, setting up ties with countries that support terrorism and recruit unemployed youths through money.

The main element in the spreading of these groups is the slowness and the deliberate delay in reaching a peaceful political solution in order to safeguard the interests of those who are benefiting from the status quo. The longer the delay, the more that these groups will spread.

The armed forces have, since the announcement of the liberation operation, offered them a peaceful solution that ensures their safety by dropping their weapons and letting our forces enter the city without a fight. But they preferred confrontation and bloodshed. The choice of war was theirs, which necessitates the liberation of the capital by force. However, the peaceful choice is still on the table for them to surrender their weapons before it’s too late.

Tripoli is the capital of all Libyans and includes the main state institutions. A state cannot rise when its capital is ruled by militias with medium and heavy weapons, where terrorist leaders hide in its neighborhoods. This is something nobody can disagree with. The city has to be liberated and the army is the only institution that is qualified and ready for this.

The time of the liberation is coming soon to announce an era that Libyans are waiting for.

Bloomberg: Is there any time left for negotiations with the GNA? Any contacts through mediators to reach a settlement?

Haftar: What we are doing now is a patriotic duty that has nothing to do with the so-called GNA. There is nothing to negotiate with them about. In reality, the GNA -- starting with its head -- is nothing but a mouthpiece for the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood organization and its armed militias, and a soft tool in their hands, does what it’s ordered to do.

This is the truth that all Libyans know from the start and the world now knows. What the national army is doing is the continuation of a comprehensive liberation and not against any political process or societal dialogue: it’s specifically against terrorists and armed groups that have kidnapped the capital with all its political and economic institutions, and started to terrorize the people and blackmail them by force. They’re standing against the creation of a state and the transition to a period of security, stability and development.

We don’t see any need for mediation with what you call the GNA because it’s outside what we do and it’s not the target of our military operation. Any in any case, it’s been proven from experience that it can’t commit to any pledge without taking the permission of the Muslim Brotherhood and the militias. This is a fact that everyone knows.

Bloomberg: What’s your comment on Fayez Al-Sarraj’s initiative?

Haftar: Unfortunately, the man can only say what he’s told to say. The decision isn’t his to make. It’s all echo that doesn’t deserve to be answered because our time is precious. Our attention is now focused on liberating the capital as soon as possible and with minimum losses, and then for the post-liberation phase.

At the same time, we don’t oppose any political solution to resolve the crisis. Let the politicians present their peaceful initiative and with it disarm the militias of the tank and the missile and the rifle. We would be the first to support this. It would be great no doubt, because it will spare us the need to fight and its tragedies. We would announce then a ceasefire immediately.

But the comic initiatives aimed for media attention, to gain time and give the fake impression that it’s for peace and the stemming of bloodshed -- they die at their birth.

Bloomberg: In Al-Sarraj’s initiative, he mentions that it’s aimed at those who are against the militarization of the state. Is this a hint at your desire to militarize the state?

Haftar: Since the launch of Operation Dignity in 2014 our military goals haven’t changed: eradicating terrorism, regaining sovereign control and security in the country. And before all this, to preserve the citizen’s dignity. The shape of the state and how it’s governed, this is something for Libyans to decide by their free will.

Our role is to eliminate the obstacles facing the people and pave the way for them to be the decision makers. The armed forces can’t impose its will on Libyans. The opposite is true. And I am certain that Libyans mock the phrase you mentioned because they appreciate the role of their army in restoring the homeland and freeing it from terrorism. They also appreciate the sacrifices made. Libya didn’t suffer in its history since independence more than it did under the militias, the Muslim Brotherhood and the terrorists.

Libya at the end of the day will be, God willing, a free, civil and sovereign state according to what the Libyans decide. The most precious element of the state is the citizen who enjoys all of his constitutional rights without oppression.

The Libyans’ wealth will be for them to spend on building their present, future and the future of next generations. Anyone who committed a crime against the Libyans will be dealt with only by the justice system the day when the state rises and victory is declared.

As for convening meetings, the army has never intervened or stopped this before.

Bloomberg: How do the U.S. and Russia as well as Arab states view the army’s advance toward the capital?

Haftar: The entire world has recognized the nature of the groups that the army is fighting at the outskirts of the capital, and not just the United States and Russia. The entire world has believed that security and stability in Libya and its surrounding areas can’t be achieved as long as these armed groups are carrying weapons and imposing their influence over every institution in the capital.

The thing that some countries fear the most is for the oil sector to be affected by military operations. Reality has proven that these fears are unfounded. Some neighboring countries fear that the military operations would lead terrorists to flee to their territories. To eliminate those fears, we are working to enhance joint security work to monitor the terrorists’ moves across the borders.

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