By Samy Magdy Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — 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 Libya’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.
The chaos 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.
Hifter, who is allied to the parliament in eastern Libya, is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Forces loyal to the Government of National Accord based in the capital Tripoli have backing from Turkey, a bitter rival of Egypt and the UAE in a broader regional struggle, as well as from the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar.
Hifter’s forces launched an offensive in April 2019 trying to 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.
Fighting has died down in recent weeks, but both sides were preparing for a possible battle over Sirte. 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, prompting Egypt to threaten to send troops to Libya.
“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 eastern-based House of Representatives, supported Sarraj’s proposal of demilitarization of Sirte, an idea floated earlier this month by the United States as a compromise to prevent an escalation.
“A cease-fire blocks the way for foreign military interventions and ends with the expulsion of mercenaries and dissolving the militias in order to achieve comprehensive national sovereignty,” Saleh said.
There was no immediate comment form Hifter’s army, but Hifter agreed on an Egyptian initiative in June that included a cease-fire.
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 Hifter’s camp since earlier this year. 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.
The National Oil Corporation urged for oil revenues to “remain frozen until a comprehensive political agreement is reached.”
“Full transparency and effective governance are required as well as the return of security management of oil facilities to NOC’s exclusive control,” it said in a statement.
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.
The U.N. support mission in Libya welcomed both statements and called for the expulsion of all foreign forces and mercenaries in Libya.
“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.
Retweeting the U.N. mission statement, the U.S. Embassy in Libya also welcomed the two statements as “important steps to all Libyans.” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on Twitter welcomed both statements as “an important step on the path of achieving the political settlement.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas — who visited Tripoli on Monday to talk with the government there before heading to the United Arab Emirates to encourage it to urge Hifter to negotiate — welcomed the development. He called it a “solid basis for a permanent ceasefire” and urged a lifting of the oil blockade.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said in a tweet that the cease-fire announcement was an “important step toward restarting a political process that favors stability in the country and well-being among its people.”
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.”
Associated Press writer Kirsten Grieshaber contributed from Berlin.