UN launches new Libya talks amid cautious optimism

Gammarth (Tunisia) (AFP) –


Rival Libyan factions met Monday for UN-led talks aimed at bringing a lasting peace to their war-torn North African country and preparing for elections.

The meeting in neighbouring Tunisia follows months of relative calm and a key ceasefire deal in October between the two major camps in the long-running conflict.

"You have the opportunity to end a tragic conflict," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told delegates in a video message at the opening ceremony.

"Now it's your turn to shape the future of your country."

Libya has seen a decade of violence since the 2011 toppling of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in a NATO-backed uprising, with a complex web of regional conflicts exacerbated by foreign intervention.

But October's ceasefire agreement has allowed for vital oil production to resume and for progress on efforts to end years of political deadlock.

This week's talks in Gammarth, near the Tunisian capital Tunis, aim to unify the country under a single executive and pave the way for national elections.

The 75 Libyan delegates, selected by the UN, have given up the right to play a role in the resulting political body.

As well as preparing for national polls, the interim executive will face the daunting challenges of providing basic services in a country wracked by economic woes and the coronavirus pandemic.

- Foreign interference -

Libya is dominated by two rival administrations, each backed by foreign powers and a multitude of armed groups.

The Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which resulted from previous UN-backed talks in 2015, is backed by Turkey.

In the east, military strongman Khalifa Haftar supports a rival administration with backing from Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

Haftar launched an offensive in April 2019 to seize the capital, trashing UN efforts to hold a previous round of talks.

But after a bloody year-long stalemate, pro-GNA forces with renewed backing from Turkey forced him into a rapid retreat eastwards in June.

Peter Millett, a former British ambassador to Libya, warned on the first day of talks that "if potential spoilers like Haftar and the militias don't see themselves benefitting, hostilities could break out again".

"The most important thing is a timeline for elections," he said.

"It needs to be short, maximum nine months, with key milestones for implementing and a clear message from the international community that they will impose sanctions on anyone who obstructs it."

Guterres urged world powers to support peace efforts and to respect a long-standing UN arms embargo, words echoed by the host of the talks, Tunisian President Kais Saied.

"This is a historic moment," Saied told delegates at the opening ceremony.

"We are able to overcome all difficulties and obstacles ... when there is no interference from outside powers."

Media in both eastern and western Libya voiced cautious optimism about the talks.

Some described the dialogue as the last chance to avoid the partition of Libya and bring an end to a decade of violence.

Others said that by trying to redraw the transitional period without direct elections first, it would lay the ground for further armed clashes.