Libya’s government announces cease-fire, calls for elections
Libya’s U.N.-supported government Friday announced a cease-fire across the oil-rich country and called for demilitarizing the strategic city of Sirte in an initiative supported by the rival parliament in the east.
The development could mark a breakthrough following international pressure amid rising fear of a new escalation in the chaotic proxy war as rival sides mobilize for a battle over Sirte. The gateway to the country’s major oil export terminals has been under the control of forces loyal to military commander Khalifa Hifter since January.
Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
Hifter is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Turkey, a bitter rival of Egypt and the UAE in a broader regional struggle over political Islam, is the main patron of the forces loyal to the Government of National Accord based in the capital Tripoli, which are also backed by the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar.
Hifter’s forces launched an offensive in April 2019 to try and capture Tripoli. But his campaign collapsed in June when the Tripoli-allied militias, with heavy Turkish support, gained the upper hand, driving his forces from the outskirts of the city and other western towns.
Emboldened by Turkey’s support, Tripoli-allied forces vowed to retake Sirte and the Jurfa area, which includes a vital inland military base, from Hifter’s forces, leading Egypt to threaten to send troops to Libya.
The chaos in the oil-rich country has worsened in recent months as foreign backers increasingly intervene, despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year. Thousands of mercenaries including Russian, Syrians and Sudanese are fighting on both sides of the conflict.
“Achieving an effective cease-fire requires the demilitarization of Sirte and Jurfa areas, and that police forces from the two sides agree on security arrangements there,” said Fayez Sarraj, head of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
In a separate statement, Aguila Saleh, speaker of the rival east-based House of Representatives, supported Sarraj’s proposal of demilitarization, an idea floated earlier this month by the United States as a compromise to prevent an escalation in the more than 9-year-old conflict.
Sarraj also called for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in March according to a “a constitutional base agreed on by the Libyans.”
Saleh, the parliament speaker, called for Sirte to be a temporary seat of the new government.
Both Saraj and Saleh said they want an end to an oil blockade imposed by the camp of military commander Khalifa Hifter since earlier this year. Hifter is an ally to the parliament speaker. They also called for oil revenues, the country’s main source of revenue, to flow into the bank account of the National Oil Corporation outside Libya.
Powerful tribes in eastern Libya loyal to Hifter closed oil export terminals and choked off major pipelines at the start of the year in an effort to pressure the Tripoli-based government, which is accused of using oil revenues to fund militias and mercenaries.
There was no immediate comment form Hifter’s army, but Hifter agreed on an Egyptian initiative in June that included a cease-fire.
The U.N. support mission in Libya welcomed both statements and called for the expulsion of all foreign forces and mercenaries in Libya. Both sides of the conflict are supported by thousands of mercenaries.
“The two initiatives have created hope for forging a peaceful political solution to the longstanding Libyan crisis, a solution that will affirm the desire of the Libyan people to live in peace and dignity,” said Stephanie Williams, acting head of the U.N. mission.
Previous efforts to secure lasting cease-fires have stalled. But this time could prove different with heavy foreign interference in the conflict-stricken country, and the possibility of direct military confrontation between Egypt and Turkey, both allies to the U.S.
“It sounds more like an announcement that tried to tick all the theoretical boxes, with a clear American influence,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at The Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “But is it fully implementable? That will be hard.”
The chaos in the oil-rich country has worsened in recent months as foreign backers increasingly intervene, despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.
Hifter’s offensive on Tripoli deeply polarized the already divided country and aborted U.N. efforts to hold a peace conference more than a year ago.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on Twitter welcomed both statements as “an important step on the path of achieving the political settlement.”