UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations said Tuesday it expects “things to get moving in the next few days” following the agreement by Libya’s warring parties to resume cease-fire negotiations following days of heavy fighting.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said acting U.N. envoy Stephanie Williams and the U.N. mission remain in direct contact with the U.N.-supported government in the capital Tripoli and Khalifa Hifter’s east-based forces “to figure out the next steps and the logistics about the resumption of the talks.”
Dujarric said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres adds his voice in welcoming the agreement to resume negotiations and calls on the parties to engage constructively and in good faith.
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups.
Eastern-based forces under Hifter launched an offensive to take Tripoli in April 2019, and the turmoil in the oil-rich country has steadily worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervene — despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.
Hifter’s offensive is supported by France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries. The government in Tripoli is backed by Turkey, which deployed troops and mercenaries to help defend the capital in January, as well as by Italy and Qatar.
Mercenaries, mainly from the Syria battlefield, are now fighting on both sides and complicating the already complex proxy war, according to U.N. experts.
U.S. and Libyan officials have accused Russia of deploying fighters from the Wagner Group in key battleground areas in Libya, and last month, in an unusually bold statement, the U.S. military accused Russia of deploying 14 aircraft to eastern Libya to help Hifter’s forces, saying the move was part of Moscow’s longer term goal to establish a foothold in the region that could threaten NATO allies. Russia dismissed those claims as “stupidity” and has repeatedly denied playing any role in Libya’s fighting.
The U.N. Mission in Libya announced the agreement on a new round of cease-fire talks late Monday, expressing hope they would “mark the beginning of calm on the ground" and allow the country’s war-scarred health system to cope with the coronavirus outbreak in the country.
COVID-19 has infected at least 168 people in Libya, but testing is extremely limited. The impact of a large outbreak would likely be severe given the continued fighting and the state of the country’s health system.
The U.N. Mission said delegates from the rival parties will conduct the cease-fire talks through video calls because of the pandemic.
The announcement came as the foreign-fueled proxy war teeters on the edge of a major escalation, and signaled that both sides, and their foreign backers, may prefer to pull back from the brink.
The battle for Tripoli has threatened to plunge Libya into chaos on the scale of the 2011 uprising that toppled Gadhafi.
On Sunday, Hifter’s froces said they recaptured the strategic town of al-Asabaa, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of the capital, after launching airstrikes on militias in the area.
Control of the town gives Hifter’s forces better access to Tarhuna, their main western stronghold and supply line southeast of the capital.
Hifter’s gain more broadly reflects the seesawing nature of the war, which in recent weeks had turned dramatically in favor of rival Turkish-backed Tripoli militias that ousted Hifter’s forces from a key western airbase and several towns.
The Tripoli government had been struggling to fend off the year-long siege of the capital by Hifter’s forces when Turkey escalated its air support.