CAIRO — Libya’s U.N.-supported government Friday announced a cease-fire across the oil-rich country and called for demilitarizing the strategic city of Sirte in an initiative supported by the rival parliament in the east.
The development could mark a breakthrough following international pressure amid rising fear of a new escalation in the chaotic proxy war as rival sides mobilize for a battle over Sirte. The gateway to Libya’s major oil export terminals has been under the control of forces loyal to military commander Khalifa Hifter since January.
Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
The chaos has worsened in recent months as foreign backers increasingly intervene, despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year. Thousands of mercenaries including Russian, Syrians and Sudanese are fighting on both sides of the conflict.
Hifter, who is allied to the parliament in eastern Libya, is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Forces loyal to the Government of National Accord based in the capital Tripoli have backing from Turkey, a bitter rival of Egypt and the UAE in a broader regional struggle, as well as from the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar.
Hifter’s forces launched an offensive in April 2019 trying to capture Tripoli. But his campaign collapsed in June when the Tripoli-allied militias, with heavy Turkish support, gained the upper hand, driving his forces from the outskirts of the city and other western towns.
Fighting has died down in recent weeks, but both sides were preparing for a possible battle over Sirte. Emboldened by Turkey’s support, Tripoli-allied forces vowed to retake Sirte and the Jurfa area, which includes a vital inland military base, from Hifter’s forces, prompting Egypt to threaten to send troops to Libya.
Previous efforts to secure lasting cease-fires have stalled. But this time could prove different with heavier diplomatic efforts, including by the United States, aiming to avert the of direct military confrontation between Egypt and Turkey, both American allies, over Sirte.
“It sounds more like an announcement that tried to tick all the theoretical boxes, with a clear American influence,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya expert at The Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “But is it fully implementable? That will be hard.”
Crucially, there was no immediate word from Hifter on the announcements, though he agreed to an Egyptian initiative in June that included a cease-fire.
Fayez Sarraj, head of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, said an effective cease-fire requires "the demilitarization of Sirte and Jurfa areas, and that police forces from the two sides agree on security arrangements there.”
Aguila Saleh, speaker of the rival eastern-based House of Representatives, supported Sarraj’s proposal of demilitarization of Sirte — but he did not mention Jurfa. The United States floated the idea of demilitarization earlier this month.
“A cease-fire blocks the way for foreign military interventions and ends with the expulsion of mercenaries and dissolving the militias in order to achieve comprehensive national sovereignty,” Saleh said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomes the calls for a cease-fire and an end to hostilities in Libya and hopes they “will be respected immediately by armed forces from both sides,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The U.N. chief urged the Joint Military Commission to quickly take up the cease-fire call and called on all parties “to engage constructively in an inclusive political process” based on the outcome of a conference of world leaders in Berlin in January, Dujarric said. World powers and other countries with interests in Libya’s long-running civil war agreed at the meeting to respect a much-violated arms embargo, hold off on military support to the warring parties and push them to reach a full cease-fire.
UAE’s Foreign Ministry welcomed Saleh's cease-fire initiative that did not include the demilitarization of Jurfa area, according the state-run WAM news agency.
The powerful interior minister of the Tripoli-based administration, Fathi Bashaga, hailed the cease-fire initiative, saying on Twitter: “We are looking forward to develop
Sarraj also called for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in March according to “a
Saleh, the parliament speaker, called for Sirte to be a temporary seat of the new government.
Both Saraj and Saleh said they want an end to an oil blockade imposed by Hifter's camp since earlier this year. They also called for oil revenues, the country’s main source of revenue, to flow into the bank account of the National Oil Corporation outside Libya.
The National Oil Corporation urged for oil revenues to “remain frozen until a comprehensive political agreement is reached.”
“Full transparency and effective governance are required as well as the return of security management of oil facilities to NOC’s exclusive control,” it said in a statement.
Powerful tribes in eastern Libya loyal to Hifter closed oil export terminals and choked off major pipelines at the start of the year to pressure the Tripoli-based government, which is accused of using oil revenues to fund militias and mercenaries.
Last month, Hifter set conditions for ending the oil blockade, including that revenues flow into a bank account in a foreign country with a “clear mechanism” to distribute funds fairly among Libya’s regions. He also demanded an audit of Libya’s Central Bank in Tripoli to review the spending in the past years. The audit was approved late in July after months of international pressure.
Earlier this week, Hifter's army said it would allow partial reopening of oil terminals to export stored oil to provide required gas amid power shortages in the east.
The U.N. support mission in Libya welcomed both statements and called for the expulsion of all foreign forces and mercenaries in Libya.
“The two initiatives have created hope for forging a peaceful political solution to the longstanding Libyan crisis, a solution that will affirm the desire of the Libyan people to live in peace and dignity,” said Stephanie Williams, acting head of the U.N. mission.
Retweeting the U.N. mission statement, the U.S. Embassy in Libya also welcomed the two statements as “important steps to all Libyans.” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on Twitter welcomed both statements as “an important step on the path of achieving the political settlement.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas — who visited Tripoli on Monday to talk with the government there before heading to the United Arab Emirates to encourage it to urge Hifter to negotiate — welcomed the development. He called it a "solid basis for a permanent ceasefire” and urged a lifting of the oil blockade.
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said in a tweet that the cease-fire announcement was an "important step toward restarting a political process that
Associated Press writer Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.
Samy Magdy, The Associated Press