Thousands rally in support of Libya's military strongman

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BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — Thousands of supporters of Libya's military strongman Khalifa Hifter rallied Sunday in several cities, calling on him to take charge of the country following the expiry of a two-year mandate of a U.N.-backed administration based in the capital, Tripoli.

The rallies in Benghazi, Tobruk and Tripoli called on the Moammar Gadhafi-era general to become the country's ruler to fill the political void. The U.N. maintains that its mandate for the Tripoli government, one of two rival administrations in Libya, remains in effect until a new one is introduced.

In a televised address earlier Sunday, Hifter strongly hinted that he might step in to fill the void, although he stopped short of saying clearly that he would run in presidential elections if a vote is held next year, or that he might take the reins before that. His address appeared to deliberately leave all options open.

The rallies on the streets, however, were a show of force that could be used to his advantage. Hifter did not explicitly call on his supporters to take to the streets, but such rallies have in the past been organized rather than spontaneous.

He said the expiry of the U.N. mandate for the Tripoli administration signaled the demise of all attempts to reach a political solution that would reunite the vast, oil-rich nation. He has already entertained many attempts to do that, but they all failed, he explained.

"We declare very clearly that we will fully obey the orders of the free Libyan people and no one else," said Hifter, speaking from the eastern city of Benghazi.

He is at odds with the administration based in the east that he was once linked to and is a rival of the one backed by the United Nations in Tripoli.

Likely in response to Hifter's recent bluster, the head of the eastern-based, internationally recognized parliament, Agila Saleh, called on Sunday for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in 2018. That chamber acts as a de facto government in eastern Libya.

"I call upon the Libyan people to participate in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections," he said in a TV broadcast, "It is the only way to peacefully and democratically transfer power."

The United Nations, meanwhile, said in a statement Sunday that it was "intensively trying to establish the proper political, legislative and security conditions for elections to be held before the end of 2018."

Hifter, leading the so-called National Libyan Army, has been fighting Islamic militants in the east and occasionally threatening to march on the rest of the country. He is backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

The presence of two rival governments and a strongman with military muscle attest to the chaos prevailing in Libya following the 2011 uprising against Gadhafi's rule. Alongside the two rival administrations, mostly Islamic militias wield considerable influence and control large swathes of territory in the vast North African nation.

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