Pressure mounts on Libya’s Haftar to halt Tripoli offensive

EU foreign ministers on Saturday upped pressure on Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar to halt his offensive on Tripoli. But they failed to detail enforcement mechanisms if the Libyan strongman refused to commit to a political solution.

Stephane Mahe, Reuters | Foreign ministers of Japan, Canada, Germany, the UK, Italy, US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the EU's Federica Mogherini in Dinrad, France, April 6, 2019.

Haftar's dramatic bid to take Tripoli came as a meeting of Group of Seven (G7) foreign ministers was being held in northern France with the club issuing a statement on Friday urging an immediate halt to "all military activity and movements toward Tripoli".

Several European ministers on Saturday warned Haftar not to countenance any further military action, saying that this could destroy a UN-backed peace process.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the Tripoli operations as "untimely initiatives" that could further destabilise Libya.

"There is a fundamental principle in Libya. There will be no military victory. The solution can only be a political solution," he added.

He said that France and Italy, the two European powers with the most influence in north Africa, were "on the same wavelength".

"It is important that all of the international community takes the same line," Le Drian added.

No clarity on enforcement measures

Reporting from the French coastal city of Dinard, where G7 foreign ministers were meeting to prepare for a grouping summit in August, FRANCE 24’s Robert Parsons said there appeared to be unity among the international community on the need to make sure Haftar “toes the line”.

But, Parsons noted, there was no clarity on any enforcement measures.

“It’s not really clear what measures they could take. Perhaps there could be personal sanctions directed against Haftar, perhaps efforts could be made to dry up the supply of weapons to the forces under his control, many of which come across the border from Egypt. But because there are so many different militia groups that comprise Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army, they probably get their weapons from a variety of different sources and, the reality is, trying to clamp down on that would not be that simple,” explained Parsons.

Experts say Haftar had backing from Egypt, which shares a 1,115 kilometre border with Libya, as well Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. France is viewed as Haftar’s closest ally in Europe.

Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi said that the G7 statement, which was also echoed by the UN Security Council, showed that the international community was not prepared to tolerate military action.

"We think the military initiatives are not the best ones to grant peaceful developments in Libya and a constructive path forward for stabilising the country," he said.

Asked if sanctions could be imposed against Haftar were he to fail to comply with the demands of the international community, Milanesi replied: "We have stated quite clearly what our position is and we very much hope that he [Haftar] will take it into consideration. If this will not happen, then we can see what can next be done."

Russia also called for restraint, saying Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told Haftar in a phone call that Moscow continues to insist on a political solution to "disputed issues" in Libya.

Haftar told Bogdanov about what he described as efforts to fight terrorists in Libya, including near Tripoli, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

UN says national conference will proceed

The growing international pressure on Haftar came as fresh fighting flared Saturday south of Tripoli between the pro-government forces and Haftar's troops.

On Friday, Haftar's forces were pushed back from a key checkpoint west of the capital, less than 24 hours after seizing it during the lightning offensive towards Tripoli.

Despite the flare-up, UN envoy Ghassan Salamé insisted Saturday that talks planned to be held next week in Libya would go ahead.

The UN aims to stage a conference in the southwestern Libyan town of Ghadames on April 14-16 to weigh elections as a way out of the country's prolonged factional anarchy.

Libya today is divided between two rival governments: one in the eastern city of Tobruk backed by Haftar and an internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. But the competing administrations are not the only ones vying for power. In the vast, sparsely populated south, tribal rivalries spar for control of lucrative cross-border smuggling and human trafficking routes.

While Haftar has sold himself to the West as an anti-Islamist fighter, experts say he has close links to a branch of Salafists, called Madkhalists. The Libyan commander’s opposition to another Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Salame said the despite the challenges of holding a national conference, the UN was determined not to give up.

“We know that holding the conference in this difficult time of escalation and fighting is a difficult matter. But we are determined to hold it on time unless compelling circumstances force us not to,” he told reporters in Tripoli.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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