Libyans showing that they want peace, says former UN envoy Ghassan Salame

Ceasefire and agreement on elections mark rapid progress in UN-led peace efforts

(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 10, 2020, then UN special representative for Libya Ghassan Salame arrives to attend the EU foreign ministers emergency talks on Iran at the Europa building in the Belgian capital Brussels. Salame says he has higher hopes than ever of bringing an end to a decade of violence in the North African country, in a Zoom interview with AFP a day after rival military forces concluded their latest UN-led meetings to fill in the details of a landmark October ceasefire deal. / AFP / Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD
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The United Nations' former envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, says he has higher hopes than ever of seeing an end to a decade of violence in the North African country.

"I'm very optimistic," the Lebanese diplomat said. "What we've seen in the past two months is an accumulation of positive factors."

Mr Salame was speaking a day after rival military delegations concluded their latest UN-led meetings in Libya to fill in the details of a landmark October ceasefire deal.

Meanwhile political talks, also led by the world body, were under way in Tunisia to decide on an interim government to organise elections and govern a country battered by conflict, economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday evening the UN announced that delegates had agreed that national polls should be held on December 24 next year.

Libya, which has Africa's largest proven crude oil reserves, plunged into violence after a 2011 uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

Today it is dominated by two competing administrations and an array of militias, including many foreign fighters, as well as being an arena for global rivalries.

Mr Salame resigned in March citing health reasons and stress, but was the architect of the UN's current Libya peace efforts and has stayed closely involved.

Speaking from his home in Paris, he warned that "a war that has been raging for one decade cannot be solved in a day".

But after months of relative calm and a string of positive steps, the 69-year-old said Libyans had shown "a truly renewed interest" in dialogue.

Mr Salame, a former Lebanese culture minister and professor of international relations, was appointed UN envoy in June 2017 and struggled to mediate between a Tripoli-based unity government and eastern-based administration supported by military commander Khalifa Haftar.

In April 2019, Field Marshal Haftar launched a surprise attack on Tripoli, just days ahead of a planned round of peace talks.

Mr Salame later said he had been "stabbed in the back" by UN Security Council members who had supported Field Marshal Haftar.

In June this year, the Tripoli government's forces staged a Turkish-backed counterattack against FieldMarshal Haftar's Russian-backed forces. The October ceasefire deal helped set the stage for a renewed push for peace.

Today, the UN's political talks are finally taking place in Tunisia, economically vital oil production has resumed, and the front lines are quiet.

The latest moves build on a Berlin peace conference Mr Salame's mission painstakingly organised in January, gathering the leaders of the main foreign powers in Libya for the first time.

Mr Salame said Libya was now close to being able to run elections safe enough to be "reasonably representative of the will of the people".

"I believe this can be done in the next six or seven months."

Analysts have warned that both local players and foreign powers could seek to sabotage any settlement that does not serve their interests.

That point was underlined this week by the murder in the eastern city of Benghazi of a prominent lawyer and rights activist by unidentified gunmen.

Tensions also surrounded military talks in Sirte as the unity government accused a Russian paramilitary group of refusing to let its delegation land at an airbase near the central city, a move it said threatened "the prospects of a permanent ceasefire".

But Mr Salame noted that Russia and Turkey, each of which had signed infrastructure contracts worth billions of dollars with Libya before Qaddafi's fall, could benefit from peace.

"The Libyans are ready to respect these contracts" as they rebuild their country, he said.

"In fact they are in a hurry."

Mr Salame warned against some politicians he described as "obstructionists" who were elected in 2012 and 2014 "and do not want to leave their seats".

But he noted that Libyans were increasingly taking the negotiation process into their own hands.

"I can tell you the Libyans are deciding for themselves like never before since 2011," he said.

And while he said UN consultations have shown that the overwhelming majority of Libyans want national polls, there were other ways to measure progress – the opening of roads, regular oil production and the return of displaced people to their homes.

"It will take time. You'll have the status-quo party who will try to disrupt it. You'll have probably foreign countries unhappy with it," he said.

But he said the principles agreed at the January conference in Germany were finally bearing fruit.

"I'm extremely happy," he said. "The architecture put in place in Berlin is finally being implemented."