BENGHAZI, Libya – Libyan strongman Gen. Khalifa Hifter returned to the country’s eastern city of Benghazi on Thursday, after much speculation over his treatment for an unknown ailment in France.
After disembarking from a plane at Benghazi’s Benina airport, Hifter, looking in good health and wearing a suit, met military commanders from his self-styled Libyan National Army as well as tribal elders in the airport’s VIP hall.
A live broadcast by the local channel Libya al-Hadath showed the leaders welcoming him and congratulating him on a safe return.
“I am in good health,” Hifter said in a speech to cheering supporters at the airport, adding that he did not want to discuss what ailments had driven him to travel for care abroad. “The army is as stable as (our) green mountains, no wind can shake it.”
Earlier this month, officials had only said Hifter had suffered a “medical issue” and was taken from Jordan to France for hospitalization but was stable.
Unconfirmed reports in Libyan media at the time had speculated on Hifter’s condition, with various outlets saying he suffered a lung problem, was in a coma or was under no risk but would remain under medical supervision for days.
The spokesman of Libya’s self-styled national army, Ahmed al-Mesmari, has said Hifter is in “excellent health.”
Prior to his return to the eastern city of Benghazi, Hifter made a stop in Cairo and held talks with security officials there in meetings that mainly tackled co-ordination between both sides, al-Mesmari said.
Hifter, 75, is the most powerful figure in eastern Libya and leads the LNA, which seized control over key oil terminals in the North African nation and has been fighting Islamic militants in the area.
His self-styled army has occasionally threatened to march on the rest of the country. Hifter is backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Arab countries that share his strong stance against Islamic militancy.
Libya descended into chaos after the 2011 NATO-supported uprising that evolved in a ruinous civil war, toppling and later killing longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The country is now split between governments in the east and the west.
Hifter is allied with the east-based administration but is at odds with the U.N.-backed government based in the capital, Tripoli. Alongside the two rival administrations, mostly Islamic militias wield considerable influence and control large swathes of territory in the vast North African nation.
Hifter returned to Libya during the uprising from a nearly 20-year exile in the United States. Before that, he had played a key role in the 1969 coup that brought Gadhafi to power and eventually became his top general. He was captured during the 1980s war with Chad. After the war ended in 1987, he defected and eventually fled to the United States.
While living in his Virginia exile, he became commander of the armed wing of the Libyan National Salvation Front and orchestrated a couple of failed coup attempts against Gadhafi before breaking with the opposition group. In interviews with Arab media in the 1990s, he described himself as building an armed force with U.S. assistance to topple Gadhafi and his associates. A 1996 Congressional Research Service report suggested that the United States provided money and training to the National Salvation Front.