UN chief urges Libya cease-fire, warns its future at stake

National News

In this photo provided by the United Nations, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres briefs reporters during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at U.N. headquarters in New York. (Rick Bajornas/UN Photo via AP)

BERLIN (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday urged world powers and others with interests in Libya’s long-running civil war to stop sending arms to its rival governments and keep working toward a lasting cease-fire, warning that the country’s very future “is at stake.”

Guterres implored those at a virtual ministerial meeting co-hosted by the U.N. and Germany to support peace efforts “not only in words but in actions,” including immediately backing a widely violated U.N. arms embargo against Libya.

“The violations of the embargo are a scandal and call into question the basic commitment to peace of all involved,” he told the closed meeting. “Foreign deliveries of weapons and other military support must stop immediately.”

Germany, which has been trying to act as an intermediary, said the virtual meeting was a chance to review what’s been achieved since Berlin hosted a summit on Libya in January at which participants from both sides agreed to respect an arms embargo and push Libya’s warring parties to reach a full cease-fire. That agreement has been repeatedly violated.

A summary of the ministerial meeting by the co-chairs said participants reaffirmed their commitment to the conclusions of the Berlin conference, strongly welcomed the planned resumption of talks between the rival Libyan parties, and “stressed the need to immediately stop foreign intervention in Libya.”

“There was broad agreement that repeated violations of the United Nations arms embargo had to stop immediately,” the co-chairs said.

A report by the U.N. panel of experts monitoring sanctions against Libya, seen by The Associated Press last month, said the warring parties and their international backers — the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Jordan versus Turkey and Qatar — violated the arms embargo, which remains “totally ineffective.”

Acting U.N. special envoy Stephanie Williams told a news conference after what she called “a very candid dialogue” among the major players that weapons, mercenaries and equipment “are still pouring into Libya … on both sides.” This “risks miscalculations on the ground” and poses “a direct threat to Libya’s neighbors,” she said.

“There are nine countries that are intervening in the Libyan conflict,” Williams said, without giving any names. “They all need to stop the breaches of the arms embargo.”

Libya plunged into chaos after 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.

Military commander Khalifa Hifter and his self-styled army launched an offensive in April 2019, trying to capture Tripoli, the capital. But his campaign collapsed in June when the Tripoli-allied militias, with Turkish support, gained the upper hand.

Hifter is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Turkey, a bitter rival of Egypt and the U.A.E. in a broader regional struggle, is the main patron of the Tripoli forces, which are also backed by the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar.

The virtual meeting came amid international pressure on both sides to avert an attack on the strategic city of Sirte.

Guterres said he has been “encouraged” in recent weeks and months “to witness a lull in the fighting,” with a stalemate around Sirte and direct confrontation between both sides “limited.”

Recent talks in Egypt and Morocco resulted in positive steps by the warring sides, that included a preliminary deal that aims to guide the country toward elections within 18 months and demilitarize the contested city of Sirte. They also agreed to exchange prisoners and open up air and land transit across the country’s divided territory.

Hifter also allowed the reopening of vital oil facilities last month, enabling production for the first time since powerful tribes loyal to him closed oil fields and terminals in January.

“A few weeks ago I wouldn’t have been able to say this: there are reasons for cautious optimism,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said after Monday’s meeting. “We are seeing increasing signs for a shift in thinking from military to political logic.”

“We have always said that stabilizing Libya is no sprint, but a marathon,” said Maas. “But after a phase where things even seemed to be moving backwards in recent months it’s good to be able to say we’ve managed another kilometer today.”

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said the situation in Libya is still “fragile and complex.”

Looking ahead, special representative Williams said the first face-to-face military talks with five representatives from each of the warring parties will take place in Geneva “in the next couple of weeks.”

Williams expressed hope that the much larger political talks will start “before the end of the month,” but stressed that ensuring the health and safety of participants is key because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She said there is widespread support for a resumption of political talks and she has heard “loud and clear” that Libyans want participants in the talks to “sign a pledge that they will not put their own names forward” for senior positions in a new executive.

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Edith M. Lederer reported from the United Nations. Frank Jordans in Berlin, and Samy Magdy in Cairo, contributed to this report.

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