CAIRO (AP) — The United Nations on Wednesday said Libya’s warring sides were “fully” engaged in military talks aimed at ending the fighting in the country’s west, calling the virtual meetings “productive.”
The U.N. support mission in Libya, UNSMIL, said it convened a meeting with a delegation from military commander Khalifa Hifter’s eastern-based forces on June 3, and another meeting Tuesday with a delegation from the U.N.-supported government.
“Both meetings — which were conducted virtually — were productive and enabled UNSMIL to discuss with the delegations the latest developments on the ground,” the mission said.
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 the capital of the western government, Tripoli, in April 2019. The chaos 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.
The Tripoli-based forces, backed by Turkey, gained the upper hand last week after retaking the capital’s airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city and a string of key towns near Tripoli. That forced Hifter’s fighters to withdraw — defeats that commanders painted as a tactical measure to give the U.N.-backed peace process a chance.
UNSMIL said it received both sides’ comments on a draft cease-fire deal presented by the mission Feb. 23. It did not elaborate on details of the draft, or the warring sides’ comments.
Airstrikes and grad rockets killed at least 19 civilians, including three women and five children, between June 5-8 outside the strategic coastal city of Sirte. The city is a former stronghold of the Islamic State group that Hifter’s forces captured in January, the mission said. At least 12 others were wounded, it said.
Libyan fighters allied with the Tripoli-based government earlier this week pressed their advance toward Sirte, the gateway to oil facilities in Libya’s south. But they faced intensive airstrikes from Hifter’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces, that forced them to retreat.
The mission said it was “particularly concerned” by reports of escalation and mobilization around Sirte.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday called the agreement between Hifter’s LAAF and Tripoli-based administration to re-engage in security talks as a “good first step, very positive.”
He called for “quick and good faith negotiations” to reach a cease-fire and embark on U.N.-led, intra-Libyan political talks.
“It’s time for all Libyans on all sides to act, so that neither Russia nor any other country can interfere in Libya’s sovereignty for its own gain,” he told a news conference.
The U.S. last month accused Russia of deploying at least 14 aircraft at the inland Jufra base in Libya’s south to support Russian mercenaries backing Hifter, a claim dismissed by Moscow.
Hifter is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli-based militias are aided by Qatar, Italy and Turkey. The latter recently stepped up its military support, helping shift the tide of the war.
Libya’s National Oil Corporation, meanwhile, said Wednesday that a unit affiliated with Hifter’s LAAF closed another oil field, el-Feel, in the south. The NOC said earlier this week it had resumed production in the field along with the Sharara field tribal leaders who had closed the oil facilities since January. The Sharara, Libya’s largest field, also reclosed Tuesday.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.