UN: Libya’s rivals swap prisoners, part of cease-fire deal

CAIRO (AP) — Libya’s rival leaders kicked off a U.N.-brokered prisoner exchange, United Nations and Libyan officials said Saturday, which was part of a preliminary cease-fire agreement between the warring Libyan groups.

The exchange of a first batch of prisoners, supervised by a joint military committee, took place Friday in the southwestern village of al-Shwayrif, according to the U.N. Support Mission in Libya, or UNSMIL.

Libya is split between a U.N.-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in country’s east. The two sides are backed by an array of local militias as well as regional and foreign powers.

The oil-rich country was plunged into chaos after the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

In April 2019, east-based commander Khalifa Hifter and his forces launched an offensive to try and capture Tripoli, a campaign that collapsed after Turkey stepped up its military support of the U.N.-supported government.

The two sides signed a nationwide, U.N.-brokered cease-fire deal in October that included an exchange of all war prisoners.

UNSMIL announced the prisoner exchange without giving details on how many prisoners were freed for each side. It called for both sides to speed up the implementation of the cease-fire deal, including the exchange of all prisoners.

Fathi Bashaga, the powerful interior minister of the U.N.-supported government, hailed the exchange in a tweet, attaching photos of released prisoners.

The Tripoli Protection Unit, a militia allied with the capital-based government, also posted a 31-second video apparently showing the prisoner exchange, with an official reading the names of those released.

The cease-fire deal also included the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya within three months.

However, no progress was announced on the issue of foreign forces and mercenaries two months after they inked the deal.

Thousands of foreign fighters, including Russians, Syrians, Sudanese and Chadians, have been brought to Libya by both sides, according to U.N. experts.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, the military chief of staff Yasar Guler and other military commanders arrived in Tripoli Saturday, where they were meeting with their allies in the U.N.-supported government, according to the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency.

The unannounced visit has underscored the close ties between the Tripoli government and Ankara. Akar and Guler also visited Libya in July.

Saturday’s visit by Akar and other military officials came after the Turkish parliament on Tuesday extended for 18 months a law that allows the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya.

The Turkish decision comes despite the cease-fire deal that envisioned the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries within three months.

The cease-fire deal also called for “military deals on training inside Libya” to be frozen and for foreign trainees to leave the country. It did not name a particular country but apparently referred to Turkey, which has struck military and disputed maritime deal with the Tripoli administration.

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Associated Press writer Zeynap Bilginsoy in Ankara contributed.

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