PARIS (AP) — Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter said in a meeting on Wednesday with French President Emmanuel Macron that he cannot work toward a cease-fire because he has no one with whom to negotiate.
Hifter opened a military offensive on the Libyan capital of Tripoli in early April despite commitments to move toward elections in the North African country.
Libya is divided between Hifter, whose self-styled Libyan National Army controls the east and much of the south, and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, who runs the U.N.-supported but weak government in Tripoli.
During a more than hour-long closed door meeting, Macron asked Hifter to work toward a cease-fire and a return to the political process, according to a statement from Macron’s office.
When the question of a cease-fire is put on the table, “the reaction of … Hifter is ‘with whom can I negotiate a ceasefire today?'” an official of the presidential Elysee Palace said. Hifter considers the Sarraj government is being eaten from within by armed militias and considers “it’s not for him (Hifter) to negotiate with representatives of these militias,” the official said. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the delicate talks and asked to remain anonymous.
The closed-door meeting came two weeks after Macron hosted Libya’s struggling U.N.-backed prime minister, who has denounced Hifter’s offensive as an attempted coup. Macron’s office has expressed support for Sarraj.
The official rejected claims that France is secretly backing Hifter, saying that France is trying “to create a dynamic” between the two.
“Sarraj is the legitimate prime minister of Libya and Hifter … is an essential actor in the Libyan crisis,” the official said.
Paris hosted the two men in 2017 in a bold bid to launch a peace process and organize elections. The statement from the president’s office said the meeting was “to facilitate dialogue between the two Libyans, in the context of military operations on the outskirts of Tripoli.”
The statement noted commitments by the Libyans in Paris, Italy and the United Arab Emirates: creating a transitional government, unifying Libyan institutions and preparing elections.
Hifter used the meeting to justify his offensive on Tripoli, the official said, but added that the Paris meeting was able to advance the situation.
“At the end of the meeting, Hifter recognized that inclusive political discussions are necessary, and he agreed that, when conditions are right, to the relaunching of political dialogue,” the official said.
“He didn’t say he would make a political (gesture) tonight or tomorrow, but was convinced at the end of the meeting of the need” for it, the official said.
The fighting over Tripoli erupted on April 4, with the LNA led by Hifter and aligned with a rival government in the east, launching a push on the country’s capital, located in the west, and militias loosely allied with the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli.
The death toll from the fighting stood at 510 on Sunday, according to the World Health Organization, mainly combatants but also including civilians. Tens of thousands have been displaced or trapped by Hifter’s offensive.
The U.N. envoy for Libya warned on Tuesday that the oil-rich nation was “on the verge of descending into a civil war” that could imperil its neighbors. Ghassan Salame told the U.N. Security Council that extremists from the Islamic State group and al-Qaida are already exploiting the security vacuum.
Libya has been split between rival authorities in east and west since 2014, with each side backed by various militias. Hifter’s forces have battled Islamic extremists and other rival factions across eastern Libya, and recently made inroads in the south.
Hifter presents himself as a strong hand that can restore stability after years of chaos that transformed Libya into a haven for armed groups and a major conduit for migrants bound for Europe. His opponents, however, view him as an aspiring autocrat and fear the country could return to one-man rule as under longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was ousted and killed in 2011.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.