UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations said its top envoy in Libya held talks Wednesday with a delegation from Khalifa Hifter’s eastern-based forces to follow up on the agreement by the country’s warring parties to resume cease-fire negotiations, calling it “a positive step.”
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said acting special representative Stephanie Williams would hold a similar video meeting with a delegation from the U.N.-supported government in the capital of Tripoli “in the coming days.”
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 and foreign governments.
Eastern-based forces under Hifter launched an offensive trying to take Tripoli in April 2019, and the turmoil in the oil-rich country has steadily worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervened despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.
Dujarric called the meetings with the two delegations “first steps ... in the right direction.”
“We will continue pushing and working with the parties ... to alleviate some of the suffering of the Libyan people,” he said. “To say that the situation on the ground, the violence and the political situation, is complex would be the understatement of the year.”
Dujarric said negotiations on a cease-fire agreement and technical arrangement will continue on the basis of a draft presented to both sides by Libya’s U.N. Mission on Feb. 23.
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.
Last month, 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.
Dujarric said the United Nations reiterates its concern at “the persistent violations of the arms embargo on Libya” and calls on all countries to strictly enforce it.
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.
The virus 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.
France’s foreign ministry welcomed the agreement and said it “intends to do everything in its power to bring about an immediate resumption of discussions and the swift signing of a ceasefire agreement.”
“The worst scenario would be a Turkey-Russia deal imposing their conditions,” said a top French official, speaking anonymously under the French presidency’s customary practices. “What we seek is not the victory of one side over another, but political negotiations and resource sharing.”
The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it is “heartened” at the agreement and urged the parties “to relaunch U.N.-led political talks toward a solution as soon as possible.”
The secretary-general’s special representative for Libya, Ghassan Salame, resigned in March and diplomats say the U.S. has blocked two candidates to replace him. A replacement needs U.N. Security Council approval.
The State Department said Wednesday that the Trump administration wants the job split in two, with a U.N. special envoy “who has senior diplomatic clout and personal standing" focusing exclusively on negotiating a political solution and a separate special representative running the U.N. mission.
Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations have been private, say other Security Council members want one person to fill both roles.
The announcement of talks came as the foreign-fueled proxy war teeters on the edge of a major escalation and signaled that both sides, and their foreign backers, might prefer to pull back.
On Sunday, Hifter’s forces said they recaptured a strategic town after staging airstrikes on militias in the area 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.
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.