The rift between France and Italy over Libya policy burst into the open on Thursday as an offensive by commander Khalifa Haftar to capture the capital Tripoli stalled amid fierce fighting.
Diplomats said France, which has in the past deployed special forces to aid Field Marshal Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) had blocked a planned European Union resolution that would have condemned the Tripoli attack.
In Tripoli itself there were signs that the LNA offensive against forces of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) had stalled, with battles across a fluid frontline south of the city. LNA units are now 11 kilometres from the city centre, where both sides have blocked roads with earth ramparts.
French diplomatic sources told Reuters news agency that they did not object to calling on the LNA to cease its offensive, but wanted a EU statement expanded to include reference to the plight of migrants trapped in the fighting, and to the presence, among anti-LNA forces, of militant groups.
Italy, a strong supporter of the GNA, accused France of jeopardising Libya’s security.
“It would be very serious if France for economic or commercial reasons had blocked an EU initiative to bring peace to Libya and would support a party that is fighting,” said Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. “As minister of the interior I will not stand by and watch.”
France and Italy have been at loggerheads over Libya, and several other issues including the distribution of migrants in Europe, for some time. Mr Salvini accused Paris of putting business ahead of humanity, saying: “Some think that the [2011 Nato-led military intervention] in Libya promoted by [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy was triggered more by economic and commercial interests than by humanitarian concerns. I hope we are not seeing the same film all over again.”
France and Italy had previously been at the forefront of international efforts to end Libya’s four-year civil war, each holding a high-profile peace conference last year to encourage Libyan parties to hold elections.
French support for Field Marshal Haftar reflects sentiment in Paris that he is a bulwark against militancy in Libya and the wider North African region. Italian support for the GNA is motivated in part by agreements it has made with GNA forces to intercept people-smugglers, an initiative that has sharply cut the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. France’s Total and Italy’s ENI both have substantial oil interests in Libya, but there are no reports of either suffering production shortfalls as a result of the conflict.
The Paris-Rome fall-out has triggered fears among some diplomats that there will be no common front among external powers to persuade Libya’s combatants to agree a ceasefire. The UN on Wednesday postponed planned Libya peace talks, the National Conference, which had been scheduled for April 14. The UN insists it will hold the conference at a later date, but diplomats know they will need international unity to make it succeed.
In New York late on Wednesday night, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who was visiting Libya on April 4 when the fighting first broke out, repeated calls for calm.
He said his appeals while he was in Libya for a ceasefire had failed. “It is obvious that my appeal for an offensive not to take place and for the hostilities to stop was not heard,” said Mr Guterres. “We need to restart a serious political dialogue and a serious political negotiation, but it is obvious that that cannot take place without fully stopping hostilities.”
The World Health Organisation said 56 people have died since fighting began, with 8,075 people fleeing their homes. The LNA said that in addition, 28 of its soldiers had been killed and 92 wounded.
Battles with artillery and rocket fire, backed by sporadic air strikes by both sides, were concentrated in the south western part of the city around the former international airport and the Ain Zara district.