An Islamist fighter from the Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) coalition flashes the V sign for victory on Aug. 24 at the entrance of Tripoli international airport. (Mahmud Turkia / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Egypt and the United Arab Emirates secretly carried out airstrikes against Islamic militias inside Libya, the United States publicly acknowledged Tuesday, another sharp jolt to American-led attempts over the past three years to stabilize Libya after dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s overthrow.
One official said Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia for months have been supporting a renegade general’s campaign against Libyan militant groups, but that the Saudis don’t appear to have played a role in recent strikes. The Libyan government is too weak and disorganized to fight the militants itself. Another official said the U.S. was aware that Egypt and UAE were planning strikes and warned them against it. Neither U.S. ally notified Washington before launching the strikes, officials said.
“Outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. She said Libya was in a “very fragile place.”
But U.S.-led international efforts to secure the country clearly are fraying as impatience in the region grows. Libya is undergoing its worst violence since rebels ousted Gadhafi in 2011. Tripoli’s international airport is largely destroyed and diplomats, foreign nationals and thousands of Libyans have fled. The U.S. embassy there is closed, nearly two years after the U.S. ambassador was killed while visiting Benghazi.
Since then, powerful militias have seized power and the central government has proved unable to create a strong police force or unified military. In recent months, Islamist fighters have confronted a backlash, losing their power in parliament and facing a counteroffensive by former Gadhafi and rebel Gen. Khalifa Hifter. Washington doesn’t support the general. But some of Libya’s neighbors, fearful of the growing power of the Islamist extremists, are helping him.
Although Britain, France, Germany and Italy joined the U.S. in expressing their concerns about the airstrikes, Egyptian officials denied involvement and the Emiratis haven’t commented. The airstrikes reflect growing international division, with Egypt and the UAE, two of the region’s most powerful, anti-Islamist governments, deciding they needed to act to prevent Libya from becoming a failed state and a breeding ground for jihadist activity throughout the Arab world.
A U.S. official said recent airstrikes were done without authorization from Libya’s government. The officials weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity. The Egyptian and UAE role in the strikes was first reported by The New York Times.
Asked about American influence with its partners in Libya, Psaki lamented the “very complicated political situation” in the country. She said the U.S. remained committed to seeing democracy prevail in Libya even if that will “take some time.” She acknowledged U.S. frustration with the pace of Libya’s transition.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman, called for nations to refrain from adding to Libya’s violence, as did the newly appointed U.N. envoy to the country, Bernardino Leon. He said an inclusive political process with all Libyans represented in parliament, government and other state institutions can end the instability, but “foreign intervention won’t help Libya get out of chaos.”
The strikes happened as Islamist-backed militias were engaged in ongoing fighting for control of the Tripoli airport. They occurred on two days in the last week.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri called reports of an Egyptian role “unsubstantiated rumors.”
“We have no direct connection to any of the military operations on the ground in Libya,” he said.
But Egypt has been closely involved in Libya’s ongoing contest for power for several months, according to several Egyptian officials. They said the effort began with intelligence collection about training camps, hideouts and barracks for extremist groups in the east such as Ansar al-Shariah, which the U.S. blames for the 2012 attack on its diplomatic facility in Benghazi.
That operation included an Egyptian elite force called “Rapid Intervention,” which was formed by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to combat terrorism inside and outside Egypt.
Officials with knowledge of the operations say Egypt has been working with Saudi, Emirati and Libyan military officials to support Hifter’s counteroffensive. They weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the covert efforts and demanded anonymity. An American citizen who serves as a spokesman for the general, David Anthony LeVeque, confirmed that Egypt was assisting the fight against extremist Islamist factions. He said the Islamists were getting arms from Qatar.
Three years ago, the Emirates and Gulf neighbor Qatar played the most prominent Arab roles in the military intervention that led to Gadhafi’s ouster. Both sent warplanes as part of the NATO-led effort. Qatar in particular supplied weapons to rebels.
But the two countries, both important U.S. allies, are in opposing camps now, jostling for influence in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Michael reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sarah El Deeb and Jon Gambrell in Cairo, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.