People shout during a rally in support of former Libyan army officer Khalifa Haftar's "Operation Dignity" in Benghazi, May 30, 2014. "Operation Dignity" is Haftar's self-declared campaign against extremists he accuses Islamist parties in the GNC of allowing to flourish. Irregular forces loyal to Haftar - a mixture of militias, regular army and air force units - have bombed Islamist militant bases in the eastern city of Benghazi twice since then, most recently on Wednesday. REUTERS Image Credit: REUTERS

Tripoli: Thousands rallied Friday in Libya’s two main cities to a rogue general who has been pressing an offensive against jihadist militias in the east of the country for two weeks.

The crowds chanted slogans criticising new Prime Minister Ahmad Mateeq, whose cabinet is already mired in a political standoff with its predecessor.

Khalifa Haftar, head of the so-called National Army, launched his assault on Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi on May 16, and has won the support of units from the regular army and air force, as well as some militias who fought to oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The retired general has said he aims to wipe out “terrorism” in the eastern city, which has been a hotbed of Islamist militancy since uprising, and last week he said the country had become a “terrorist hub.”

Authorities have accused Haftar of launching a coup, but he has said the people had given him a “mandate” for the operation.

In Benghazi, hundreds of people gathered outside the Tibesti Hotel, where they chanted slogans in support of Haftar’s offensive and against terrorism.

Since 2011, dozens of members of the security forces have been gunned down or killed in bomb blasts around Benghazi. No group has claimed the attacks, but the violence has been blamed on radical Islamists who control swathes of the Mediterranean city.

And in Martyrs’ Square in the capital Tripoli, hundreds more rallied amid tight security to show their backing for Haftar and to voice their disapproval for Mateeq’s government.

Demonstrators carried a mock coffin that bore the slogan “Mateeq’s government,” “the GNC” and “Ansar Al Sharia.”

The General National Congress is the Islamist-dominated interim parliament that elected Mateeq amid claims of improprieties after Abdullah Al Thinni resigned last month. Ansar Al Sharia is a jihadist militia based in Benghazi classified by Washington as a terrorist organisation.

Others chanted “Free Libya, Mateeq out,” “Libya is not Kandahar,” while other banners read “The people and the army, we are fighting terrorism,” or “yes to a civil state.”

Political standoff

Several hundred metres away in the capital’s Algeria Square, dozens of Islamists held a rival demonstration, denouncing what they called Haftar’s “coup d’etat” and stressing their “support for the democratic process.”

A city that was ultra-safe during Gaddafi’s rule has become a nightmare for residents, who are constantly on tenterhooks for fear new fighting will erupt between rival former militias, many of which are from cities outside Tripoli.

“Not for one moment did we imagine that those who liberated the country would become our oppressors and deprive people of any security,” said Meftah, a 50-year-old teacher who declined to give his surname.

“People are frightened to go out after dark and our children live in terror of the nighttime bombings and shootings,” he said.

Many of the militias in the city back either premier Mateeq’s new government or Thani’s outgoing government, which is refusing to hand over power.

Mateeq was elected prime minister in a chaotic GNC session, but his critics have labelled that illegal.

He is theoretically due to lead the country until Libyans hold new parliamentary elections on June 25.

The GNC was elected in July 2012, in Libya’s first ever-free polls. But its legitimacy was challenged after it unilaterally prolonged its mandate, due to expire this February, until December.

Under the pressure of street protests, it announced new elections.