UN launches new bid to stop Libya from breaking up

Faction leaders invited to meetings in the Tunisian capital from Monday to reconcile House of Representatives parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk and the United Nations-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
Members of the Libyan Air Force next to fighter jets on the tarmac of the Air College, which was turned into an air base for jets targeting ISIL positions in Sirte as well as in the north-central and north-western Libya, on September 4, 2016. Mahmud Turkia / AFP
Members of the Libyan Air Force next to fighter jets on the tarmac of the Air College, which was turned into an air base for jets targeting ISIL positions in Sirte as well as in the north-central and north-western Libya, on September 4, 2016. Mahmud Turkia / AFP

Paris // The United Nations has convened crisis talks with Libya’s factions from Monday to try to halt a widening east-west split that threatens to tear the country apart.

While Libyan forces are close to crushing ISIL in its main base of Sirte after three months of hard fighting, the country remains divided between eastern and western governments.

Faction leaders have been invited to meetings in the Tunisian capital expected to last several days, aimed at restarting a political process stalled after the House of Representatives parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk rejected a cabinet of the United Nations-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

Under the Libya Political Agreement, a peace plan designed to end a civil war that began in July 2014, the GNA was to run the country supported by the parliament.

But while the GNA moved to Tripoli at the end of March, it has yet to win the parliament’s support. For months legislators in Tobruk failed to even meet to consider a cabinet proposed by GNA prime minister-designate Fayez Al Serraj.

They finally voted on August 22, with 61 rejecting the cabinet, 39 abstaining and just one voting in favour.

Mr Al Serraj has begun work on a fresh cabinet, a delicate task involving the balancing of the country’s myriad factions. Meanwhile, Libya is breaking apart.

Tobruk has its own government, based in nearby Al Bayda and headed by prime minister Abdullah Al Thinni. It also has its own army, under the command of Gen Khalifa Haftar. And, since June 1, the Tobruk central bank has issued its own currency, printed in Russia, while the Tripoli central bank prints its money in Britain.

The key remaining link is oil. Libya’s oil production of 300,000 barrels per day, a quarter of the pre-war output, is managed by the National Oil Corporation (NOC) in Tripoli. Having itself split in 2014, the two rival NOCs reunited on July 3, with respected oil administrator Mustafa Sanallah appointed chairman.

However, Mr Sanallah has now clashed with the GNA, objecting to its decision to give money to a militia, the Petroleum Facilities Guard, in exchange for the lifting a blockade of key oil terminals.

Mr Sanallah wrote to Martin Kobler, chief of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, in a letter leaked to Reuters on July 24, objecting to the deal.

“It sets a terrible precedent and will encourage anybody who can muster a militia to shut down a pipeline, an oilfield, or a port, to see what they can extort,” Mr Sanallah wrote.

In the quest for unity, Mr Kobler will head this week’s Tunis talks, involving Libya Dialogue, a UN-chaired group of 40 representatives from Libya’s key factions which created the Libya Political Agreement last December. He was quoted this weekend saying the factionalised political landscape is simpler than it looks, telling the New York Times: “It’s all about power and oil and money. That’s all you have to know.”

Libya’s east-west administrative split is also mirrored internationally. While a UN Security Council resolution of December 23 declared that the GNA should be the “legitimate government”, this came with strings attached – the Tobruk parliament must first agree to a cabinet.

The United States and European Union have recognised the GNA, but states including Egypt, the UAE and Russia continue to recognise Tobruk.

Complicating the picture further, while France formally backs the GNA, it admitted on July 22 to having special forces working with Tobruk’s army in eastern Libya after three of its operatives died in a helicopter crash.

Le Monde reported in February that French units were aiding Gen Haftar, and sources in Paris say the French defence ministry sees the general as a reliable figure in the battle against extremism.

Diplomats worry that if the east-west split becomes formalised, it will see new fighting because each administrative centre has forces in each other’s territory. Powerful pro-Tobruk militias are based in Zintan, a hill town south-west of Tripoli, while Shura Council militias, allied to pro-GNA forces, are based in the eastern city of Benghazi, battling Tobruk’s army.

Officially, diplomats remain optimistic that the talks will succeed. On Sunday, the US Libya envoy Jonathan Winer tweeted: “Political Dialogue meeting in Tunis can help guide Libya political institutions to reaching solutions as alternative to confrontation.”

Foreign officials hope feelings of unity will be spurred by the expected success in vanquishing ISIL in Sirte. Backed by US air strikes, pro-GNA forces have trapped the militants in a single district in the coastal town, in a battle that has seen high casualties, with more than 450 Libyan forces dead and 1,200 wounded.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: September 4, 2016 04:00 AM

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