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Libya's eastern government says it won't rule by force

PARIS (AP) — The government in eastern Libya allied with forces attacking the capital does not want to rule the country by force, its foreign minister said Thursday. The Benghazi-based government is allied with Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter's self-styled Libyan National Army, which controls most of eastern and southern Libya and launched an offensive in Tripoli, in the west, last month. Hifter's forces are battling militias loosely allied with a weak, U.N.-recognized government there.

"We want to put an end to the crisis, the war and divisions," Abdulhadi Lahweej told The Associated Press in Paris, where he was meeting with members of parliament, officials at the foreign and defense ministries, and business representatives.

"Our goal is not to rule or to establish a military government. We want a civil state based on institutions and human rights. We want a government that the Libyan people choose and we will approve of whatever the people choose," he said.

Hifter's opponents view him as an aspiring strongman in the mold of Moammar Gadhafi, whose overthrow in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising plunged the country into chaos. Fayez Sarraj, the head of the Tripoli-based government, was also in Paris this week, where he met with President Emmanuel Macron as part of a swing through European capitals aimed at building support for his embattled government.

In an interview with France 24, Sarraj said Hifter's offensive was a "coup" that should be condemned internationally as "an attempt to take power by weapons, by force." He added, however, that he he was prepared to resume a U.N.-brokered peace process aimed at unifying the country. He also claimed to have reduced the number of armed groups in Tripoli from 115 to no more than five, all of which he said were integrated into the security forces.

Libya has been split between rival authorities in east and west since 2014, with each side backed by various militias. Hifter's forces have battled Islamic extremists and other rival factions across eastern Libya, and recently made inroads in the south.

He presents himself as a strong hand that can restore stability after years of chaos, which have transformed Libya into a haven for armed groups and a major conduit for migrants bound for Europe. "In clear and simple words, we do not want to rule the Libyan people," Lahweej said. "We only want to bring back the state. We want to bring security and stability. We want to control borders. We want Libya not to be a place for terrorists or a hub for migration and human trafficking."

Associated Press writers Noha ElHennawy and Joseph Krauss in Cairo contributed.

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