Tripoli: Rogue Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who was readying an offensive against Islamist groups in the country`s restive east Sunday, is a former rebel commander accused by Tripoli of staging a coup.
Haftar unleashed his so-called National Army on Friday against groups he called "terrorists" in Benghazi, Libya`s second city and the hotbed of an Islamist militancy, killing at least 79 people and wounding 141 others.
The attack, backed by warplanes and helicopters, sparked outrage. Tripoli denounced the 71-year-old as an "outlaw" seeking to take advantage of the unrest in the country to mount a coup.
But Haftar said he was just responding "to the call of the people" to defend them against "terrorists".
The controversial general started his career under Libya`s monarchy, graduating from Benghazi`s military academy and travelling to the Soviet Union for training.
But in 1969, Haftar took part in the 1969 coup that overthrew Libya`s royal family and brought dictator Moamer Kadhafi to power.
He commanded a unit during Libya`s fruitless 1978-1987 war with Chad, but fell from grace with Kadhafi when he was captured by Chadian troops and Tripoli denied he was part of the Libyan army.
The US managed to secure his release, in an operation that is still shrouded in mystery, and offered him political asylum. Haftar accepted and travelled to the US, where he joined Libya`s opposition in exile.
His time in the US gave rise to accusations he was linked to the CIA first from the Kadhafi regime, and then from rebel groups during the 2011 uprising.Haftar returned to his homeland after more than 20 years in exile shortly after the uprising against Kadhafi`s regime erupted in 2011, arriving in Benghazi in March that year.
He was named head of the ground forces loyal to the National Transitional Council (NTC), the rebellion`s political wing, and himself commanded a number of officers from Kadhafi`s armed forces who had also defected.
Haftar was never able to fully win the trust of the interim authorities: the body saw him as an ambitious and power-hungry, and worried he could go on to establish another military dictatorship, a former NTC member said on condition of anonymity.
His position was further complicated by his fierce rivalry with general Abdel Fattah Yunes, the military head of the rebellion killed in murky circumstances in July 2011.
But he is widely supported by former soldiers from the Kadhafi regime: shortly after the dictator`s fall and death in October 2011, around 150 army officers and NCOs tried named him the new chief of staff, although the NTC never officially recognised the move.
Haftar has made relatively few public appearances since but has spoken out on occasion to criticise the government, which he accuses of boosting the influence of ex-rebel militias and marginalising officers who served under Kadhafi, even those who defected early on in the rebellion.
In February, he caused a fresh stir when he released a video online in which he announced an "initiative" aimed at suspending the interim government and parliament, perceived by some officials as an attempted coup against the authorities.