March 7, 2015 / 3:36 PM / 5 years ago

Libyan Islamist leader backs UN talks, but tensions high

TRIPOLI, March 7 (Reuters) - An influential Islamist supporter of Libya’s self-declared government said United Nations talks were the only way to end the country’s conflict, but signalled a deal would be hard while a rival government works with a former ally of Muammar Gaddafi.

The remarks from Abdul Hakeem Belhadj illustrate how support for U.N. sponsored negotiations may be complicated by divisions within the two loose alliances of Libyan forces now competing for power.

Four years after the civil war that ousted Gaddafi, the North African country is caught up in conflict between two rival governments and their armed forces fighting to secure control over the OPEC member’s oil wealth.

“Unfortunately the current crisis, the division between the two parliaments, governments and also two groups of army, could be only ended through consensus and serious dialogue,” Belhadj told Reuters in an interview.

Now a leading Libyan political figure with the conservative Al-Watan party, Belhadj fought in Afghanistan, fought to overthrow Gaddafi in 1990s and then joined the 2011 uprising against the former leader.

Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni’s internationally- recognized government and elected parliament operate out of the east since a rival armed faction called Libya Dawn took over the capital Tripoli in the summer and set up its own government.

Both factions are backed by loose alliances of former rebels who once fought together against Gaddafi but turned on each other in a scramble for political control.

Thinni is backed by forces from the western town of Zintan, as well as the Qaaqaa and Al-Sawaq brigades including some of Gaddafi’s former special forces. His government has also named former Gaddafi ally Khalifa Haftar as army chief.

Haftar, a former general who helped Gaddafi to power before falling out with him in 1990s, last year began his own campaign against Islamist militants in Benghazi, joining forces with elements of the army. But critics say he is a war criminal.

Tripoli’s government is supported by Libya Dawn, an alliance of former rebel brigades from the city of Misrata and some Islamist units, as well members of the Justice and Construction Party — an arm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — and Belhadj’s Al Watan party.

Thinni says Dawn supports extremists such as Ansar al-Sharia, labelled a terrorist group by Washington.

“Haftar is the main reason for sparking the fire of sedition, especially when he claimed that he is fighting terrorism. If there was no Haftar, we would not have seen these acts,” Belhadj said.

Belhadj once tried to sue Britain for damages over torture he says he suffered at the hands of Gaddafi’s men after being handed to Libya by British and U.S. agents.

Asked about the rise of Islamic State militants, or Daesch as they are known in Arabic, Belhadj echoed the position of others within the Tripoli camp.

“Daesh, there is a phenomenon, yes,” he said. “But there are also other factors like Haftar and the loyalists from the former regime.” (Editing by Mark Potter)

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