Uncertainty over the status of a Libyan commander wanted by the International Criminal Court caused a rift between military leaders who detained him for questioning and fighters who staged protests to force his release.
The Hague-based ICC indicted Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a Special Forces commander, last August in connection with dozens of summary executions but he remains in Libya where he has been accused of further killings.
His case exposed a fault line in forces led by General Khalifa Haftar, based in eastern Libya, as they push to extend control to the south and west of the divided oil producing nation.
Werfalli is wanted over the killings of more than 30 captives during a campaign by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) against Islamists and other opponents in Benghazi. He serves in a unit attached to the LNA, which played a leading role in the campaign.
The allegations are awkward for Haftar, who courted foreign governments and the United Nations after gradually consolidating his military position in eastern Libya and emerging as the most prominent contender to lead the country.
Reports of new killings emerged in January as Haftar received UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame at his headquarters in Rajma, near Benghazi. The UN Libya mission said both men “emphasised the importance of elections in 2018”, polls which Haftar signalled he would contest.
Images appearing to show Werfalli shooting dead 10 blindfolded prisoners outside a mosque in retaliation for a twin car bombing have been seen.
Two weeks later, military sources said he handed himself in at LNA headquarters for questioning, leading supporters to block roads in protest. Werfalli was released the same night and returned to Rajma where he has stayed for the past few weeks as military police investigate him, military sources say.
LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari said Werfalli was released on bail after the first part of the investigation. Werfalli would not be handed over to the ICC, he said, because of the “integrity and strictness” of the Libyan justice system.
Interpol issued a red notice for Werfalli’s arrest last month.
Analysts say the episode also shows the limits of Haftar’s control over parts of the LNA, which drew in disparate brigades including ultra-conservative Salafists in the “Dignity Operation” it launched in Benghazi in 2014.
Restoring order and ending chaos is a constant theme in Haftar’s speeches.
Special Forces head Wanis Boukhamada is a popular figure and Werfalli has a loyal following. Last week, friends of Werfalli released a video statement demanding information about his detention.
“This person is a hero, a saviour and a symbol of Dignity (Operation),” a man reading the statement said. “If you detain him for killing terrorists, why do you not detain the pilots and the artillery and the Salafists and everyone who participated in Dignity?”
At a meeting with Boukhamada and other Special Forces commanders, Haftar said Werfalli’s case was “a national case and the nation is greater than any court”, according to sources present.
Last week, Boukhamada intervened personally to persuade Werfalli supporters who closed Benghazi roads again to end their protest.
“The LNA general command need to release Mahmoud al-Werfalli immediately, Mahmoud killed Daesh (Islamic State) members, not innocent people,” one of the protesters said.