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German foreign minister warns of 'deceptive calm' in Libya

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Tripoli (AFP)

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, visiting war-torn Libya's capital Monday, warned of a "deceptive calm" since fighting stalled around Sirte, the central hometown of fallen dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Outside powers are "continuing to massively arm the country," Maas, whose government has tried to broker peace in Libya, said during a surprise visit to the North African country.

"In Libya at the moment we are observing a deceptive calm," he said in Tripoli, seat of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

Libya has been in chaos since a Western-backed uprising toppled Kadhafi in 2011, and has become a major departure point for desperate migrants trying to reach Europe with the help of traffickers.

Eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive in April 2019 to seize Tripoli.

After 14 months of fierce fighting, Turkish-backed pro-GNA forces expelled Haftar's troops from much of western Libya and pushed them eastwards to Sirte, a gateway to Libya's rich oil fields and export terminals.

While the GNA has also been supported by Qatar, Haftar has had the backing of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Now, said Maas, "both sides and their international allies are continuing to massively arm the country and holding firm to their preconditions for a ceasefire".

Maas urged them to find ways out of "this very dangerous situation" and backed a UN proposal to establish a demilitarised zone around Sirte, some 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of Tripoli.

He said he had discussed this idea with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Interior Minister Fathi Bachagha.

- 'Arms and mercenaries' -

According to Turkish media reports, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was also in Tripoli on Monday.

Speaking at a joint press conference, Maas' GNA counterpart Mohamad Taher Siala objected to the European Union's naval mission Irini, which aims to enforce a UN arms embargo on Libya.

He said it deprives the GNA of military aid "to counter the aggression" of Haftar but "does not monitor the arrival of arms and mercenaries by air, sea and land via Egypt" in support of Haftar.

Germany's top diplomat on his two-day trip was next due to visit the United Arab Emirates, one of Haftar's main backers which last week agreed to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel.

Maas said the UAE had "shown that it has the ability to make an important contribution to peace in the region" and added that now he also hoped "to see encouraging signs from Abu Dhabi on the issue of Libya".

"The United Arab Emirates is in a position to influence General Haftar, and we expect it to do so, in the spirit of the Berlin Process," he said, referring to a January peace conference.

"Only those who participate in a political process will be part of Libya's future," Maas added.

Maas said he also wanted to discuss the fate of migrants stuck in Libyan detention centres, where human rights groups have reported widespread abuses and mistreatment.

"For a long time we have been calling for the closure of the detention centres and the establishment of alternatives in urban regions," he said, calling for "effective measures to finally combat human trafficking networks".

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