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Families sue Libyan commander who once lived in Virginia

June 27, 2019
FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2017, file photo, Libyan militia commander General Khalifa Hifter meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia. Hifter, who once lived in northern Virginia and now commands an army vying for control of his native country, has been accused in a civil lawsuit of war crimes. The lawsuit was filed Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in U.S. District Court in Alexandria by Libyan family members who say their loved ones were killed when forces controlled by Khalifa Hifter conducted bombings in civilian neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — A Libyan-American who once lived in northern Virginia and now commands an army vying for control of his native country has been accused in a civil lawsuit of war crimes.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria by Libyan family members who say their loved ones were killed when forces controlled by Khalifa Hifter conducted bombings in civilian neighborhoods.

Hifter was once a lieutenant to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But he defected during the 1980s and spent many years living in northern Virginia, where he became a U.S. citizen and is widely believed to have worked with the CIA during his time in exile.

After the country plunged into civil war, Hifter returned to Libya. He now leads the self-styled Libyan National Army, which controls the eastern part of that north African country. He launched an effort to capture Tripoli , its capital, earlier this year.

Abdulhakim Tunalli, 59, of Fairfax, is the brother of Msaddek Tunalli, who was killed outside Tripoli during an offensive by Hifter’s troops as they tried to capture the city. According to the lawsuit, Msaddek Tunalli was helping others evacuate the city when he was killed in the bombing. Msaddek Tunalli’s death is one of three this year explicitly cited in the lawsuit.

Abdulhakim Tunalli, who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a phone interview Thursday that his brother and others had successfully evacuated the neighborhood and were on their way out themselves when they became trapped in the shelling.

“Basically what Hifter did, attacking Tripoli, bombing civilians randomly — they killed women and children. And they don’t care,” Abdulhakim said.

Faisal Gill, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the families, said Hifter is essentially a warlord who uses the battle against Islamic extremism as an excuse to grab power and try to consolidate control of the country.

Last month The Associated Press reported that Hifter has cracked down on dissent in the eastern city of Benghazi, which he now controls. Billboards and posters that show Hifter in full military regalia line the streets.

Hifter’s supporters say they have restored security and civil order in the eastern part of the country and insist the Libyan National Army is not seeking to rule the country, but to rebuild the state and create the conditions for elected government.

Abdulhakim Tunalli said Hifter is an autocrat and seeking to become another Gadhafi.

“He believes in dictatorship,” Tunalli said.

Gill said the next step in the lawsuit will be to serve notice on Hifter, either in the U.S. or in Libya.

The lawsuit seeks $125 million in damages.

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