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Italy hosts Libya conference as December poll deadline appears unrealistic

Guglielmo Mangiapane / Reuters | Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte welcomes Libya's Khalifa Haftar in Palermo on Monday November 12, 2018.

Libya's key political players including strongman Khalifa Haftar met with global leaders in Italy on Monday in the latest bid by major powers to kickstart a long-stalled political process and trigger elections.

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A summit in Paris in May had seen the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and eastern Libya commander Haftar agree to hold national polls on December 10, but that date has fallen by the wayside.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte welcomed Haftar in the Sicilian capital Palermo after days of doubts over his crucial presence. Haftar said he would not take part in the conference itself, but flew to the city for meetings on its sidelines.

The GNA's Fayez al-Serraj, who is based in the west and has limited authority, arrived earlier on Monday.

The Palermo conference is widely viewed as Italy’s bid to seize back the Libya initiative from France as the December election deadline looks increasingly unlikely.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa however, Prime Minister Conte stressed that Paris and Rome shared the same viewpoint and objectives over the Libyan crisis.

Spike in violence

Acknowledging the chaotic political situation since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was deposed in 2011, the UN on Thursday conceded elections will not be viable before at least the spring of 2019.

In an interview with Reuters before the start of the Palermo conference, UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame said a spike in the violence had forced a postponement of the election date.

Salame said the vote would be held between late March and late June, but that the format of the poll would depend on what was decided at the national conference scheduled for early 2019.

"We want to ask at the national conference what type of election do you want, parliamentary or presidential, and what kind of law," he said.

Another major problem, according to investigative journalist Roumana Ougartchinska, was resolving the issue of the militias. “There is the crucial question of the militias. They are the rulers in Tripoli, they are the rulers of the institutions,” explained Ougartchinska. “So, it’s very important to solve the problem of these militias and to ensure that the country will have real institutions for security – a unified army and also a state police.”

The most imporant challenge in Libya is solving the problem of the militias

Haftar steals spotlight

The run up to the conference was dominated by speculation over whether Haftar would attend. Rome on Sunday denied a Haftar official's statement that Italy's Conte had paid a lightning visit to his Benghazi headquarters amid reports he might stay away.

A source close to the Italian government could not confirm if the two had been in telephone contact as Italian officials scrambled to secure the attendance of the powerful commander who controls vast swathes of eastern Libya.

Haftar did not join a dinner with the Libyan, Western and Arab officials attending the summit. He arrived well after the other Libyan participants and after a quick chat with Conte via a translator in front of TV cameramen left the luxury hotel venue.

"Haftar already succeeding in making the Palermo Conference about the importance of his role in any potential agreement in Libya going forward and reinforcing his position as the key actor in the Libyan crisis," said Mohamed ElJarh, CEO of research and consulting firm Libya Outlook.

Analysts say the Sicily summit risks being compromised not only by tensions between Libyan factions, but also the competing agendas of foreign powers.

Just as in May, the key Libyan invitees are Haftar, Sarraj, the eastern parliament's speaker Aguila Salah and Khaled al-Mechri, speaker of a Tripoli-based upper chamber.

Sarraj, in an interview with AFP, urged the international community on Thursday to find a "common vision" for the future of his chaos-hit North African nation.

The GNA says it will use the Palermo talks to lobby for security reforms that unify the army, a constitutionally rooted electoral process, economic reform and an end to "parallel institutions".

A ‘fundamental step'

The US, Arab countries and European nations will all send representatives to the Tuesday talks, after a dinner set for Monday.

For Rome's populist government, a top priority is stemming the flow of migrants who exploit Libya's security vacuum in their quest to reach European shores, often via Italy.

"The Palermo conference is a fundamental step in the goal of stabilising Libya and for the security of the entire Mediterranean", Conte said last week.

Diplomatic wrangling

Despite statements of their shared goals in Libya, diplomatic wrangling between Italy and France hangs over next week's summit.

In September, Italy's defence minister and parliamentary speaker both partly blamed France for Libya's security crisis, which continues to simmer some seven years after the NATO-backed uprising toppled Gaddafi.

The Italian swipes came as Tripoli was plagued by militia clashes that killed at least 117 people and wounded more than 400 between late August and late September.

According to diplomats and analysts, Russia, France, Egypt and the UAE support Haftar, while Turkey and Qatar have thrown their weight behind rivals to the eastern strongman, especially Islamist groups.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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