As Libya Disintegrates, Obama Administration Calls for ‘Dialogue’

Mideast Libya
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In this Friday, March 18, 2011 file photo, then Libyan senior Rebel commander Khalifa Hifter leaves a press conference in Benghazi, eastern Libya. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)

( – As things go from bad to worse in Libya, the Obama administration says it is “watching closely what’s been happening” over the last couple of days.

“We do not condone or support the actions on the ground, and nor have we assisted with these actions,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.

“Many of Libya’s challenges do require dialogue,” Psaki added. “We think that is the best means forward. I’d remind you, they’ve gone through quite a transition over the last several years. We remain committed to supporting them…”

Former Libyan Army General Khalifa Hifter, who lived for years in exile in the United States, has launched an offensive against Libya’s Islamist lawmakers and extremist militias — a campaign that some in Libya are calling a coup, although Hifter calls it a war on terrorism.

Asked if the State Department considers Khalifa’s actions to be a military coup, Psaki ducked the question. She said the U.S. has “not had contact with him recently,” and she repeated: “We don’t condone or support his activities and — nor have we assisted with his actions.”

Psaki called on all parties to refrain from violence and to seek resolution through peaceful means. She said the U.S. is “focused on helping to resolve the differences on the ground.”

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On Tuesday, the commander of Libya’s air force announced his support for Hifter, whose supporters attacked the Libyan parliament on Sunday and declared it to be suspended. On Tuesday, lawmakers came under rocket fire as they tried to hold a session in an undisclosed location, the Associated Press reported.

“We see that confrontation is the solution,” Khalifa Hifter told the Washington Post in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I do not think talks will work with them,” he said, referring to Islamist militias.

Hifter told the newspaper he began planning his offensive around a month ago: “We planned it after we saw people being slaughtered in the streets,” he said, referring to the slayings of police officers, judges, lawyers and others in Benghazi.

CNN reported on Tuesday that the United States has doubled the number of aircraft on standby in Italy in case hundreds of Americans need to be rescued from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli. “An evacuation order could come at any time as deadly fighting continues throughout the city,” CNN reported.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill told CNN on Tuesday that it’s a “touch and go” situation in Libya, which emerged weak and fragmented after the U.S.- assisted toppling of Moammar Ghaddafi two years ago.

“And I know there’s a lot of discussion about whether this is sort of secularist versus Islamist,” Hill said. “I’m sure there is an element of that, but I suspect it’s also a kind of regional element and a tribal element and all kinds of things thrown into this.

“And what is rather sad about the whole situation is that in the past two years there’s been very little progress in terms of governance; and if anything, these militias which were brought into sort of government structures have really been on their own, and so unless you can disarm and bring militias into sort of basic army formations, sooner or later you’ll have a problem. And I think that’s what’s happened.”

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Hill added that he hopes the Obama administration has a good idea of “who Mr. (Hifter) is, because I have a suspicion that this gentleman would like to take over that country.”

At the State Department on Tuesday, spokeswoman Psaki said Secretary of State John Kerry had sent former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Satterfield to Libya for a few days last week “as a private citizen to help build political consensus at this challenging time.”

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones was not in the country when Satterfield arrived. “It just happened to be that way because of her prior scheduled travel,” Psaki said. Jones has since returned to Libya.

Satterfield now works for the United Nations’ Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai Peninsula.

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