A renegade Libyan general who has launched an assault against Islamists has warned the country has become a "terrorist hub" and called for creation of an emergency cabinet and holding legislative elections.
Khalifa Haftar is garnering growing support among elements of the military, politicians and diplomats in a country still riven by instability three years after the overthrow of dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
He even drew positive comments from the United States, where he spent 20 years in exile, though Washington has been quick to deny claims that it is backing him.
Claiming to speak in the name of the army, Haftar urged the country's highest judicial authority Wednesday "to form a civilian presidential high council tasked with forming an emergency cabinet and organising legislative elections."
Once one of Kadhafi's top generals, he returned to support the rebellion in 2011 and has emerged this year as the most serious challenge to the post-Kadhafi authorities.
"Libya has become a hub for terrorists who control power," said Haftar, who has been branded an outlaw after his forces launched an assault Friday on the eastern city of Benghazi in which at least 79 people were killed.
Without explaining how this would come about, he said the presidential council he envisions would hand over power to an elected parliament.
He said the army had decided this after the Islamist-dominated General National Congress, whom some accuse of complicity with radical groups, had refused to step down "as demanded by the people".
Successive governments have complained that the GNC's claim to executive power as well as legislative authority has tied their hands in achieving security.
The bottom line for many is that it has failed to re-establish security in a country where militias representing tribal, regional and ideological interests wield much of the power to the detriment of the central government.
- Election prospects uncertain -
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Libya has called an election for June to replace the GNC and try to resolve the power struggle, but violence among militias threatens to scupper the vote.
US Ambassador Deborah Jones, speaking during a visit to the United States, said she "personally... would not come out and condemn" Haftar's efforts in going after groups blacklisted by the US as terrorist organisations, despite Washington's disapproval of the violence used to achieve that goal.
"He's not declared that he wants to be the ruler; he's not declared that he wants to be in charge of the state," Jones said, adding the announcement of June elections may have been one of his desired results.
"What he has declared is that he wants the GNC to step aside because the GNC has thus far failed to take any action to respond to the unhappiness of many Libyans that it has outstayed its time."
The electoral commission denied Thursday reports it had fixed June 25 as a date for the elections, which it said only the GNC can do, but that they were expected to be held some time in the second half of the month.
But with Haftar making his own demands on a political settlement, it is unclear what will happen.
He is backed by an elite army special forces unit in Benghazi, where Islamists are well entrenched; police brigades, officers at Tobruk air base, the powerful Al-Baraassa tribe from the east, the chief of staff of Libya's air defence units and the powerful ex-rebel brigade from the city of Zintan.
On the political front, Culture Minister Habib Lamine became the first member of the government to back him, saying the GNC, "which protects terrorists, no longer represents me."
And Libya's UN ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbachi, has also declared his support.
Despite the tensions, the situation was almost normal in Tripoli and Benghazi, where shops, banks and government offices were open.
However, explosions could be heard Thursday in the capital's southern district of Salaheddine, where the Zintan brigades have several military installations.
While Haftar was gaining support, a Muslim group led by influential cleric Yusef al-Qaradawi, closed to the Muslim Brotherhood, urged Libyans Thursday to firmly oppose attempts to topple "legitimacy" in their country.
A statement by the Association of Muslim Scholars did not mention Haftar by name, urged Libyans to "unite" and stand "firmly against whoever tries to topple the legitimacy and sow sedition" in the country.