As Libya coast road opens, UN pushes for exit of foreign fighters

Next step on country's path to stability is making Russian, Syrian, Sudanese and Chadian fighters leave

Libyan Interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah, waves as he stands atop an excavator on June 20, 2021, in the town of Buwairat al-Hassoun, during a ceremony to mark the reopening of 300-kilometre road between the cities of Misrata and Sirte,  Libya's unity government today reopened the coastal highway linking the country's east and west, that was cut off in 2019 as eastern-based military strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to seize the capital Tripoli. 
It connects the war-torn North African country's border with Tunisia to its frontier with Egypt. / AFP / Mahmud TURKIA
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The UN on Friday urged mercenaries from Russia, Syria, Sudan and Chad to leave Libya, where the opening of a coastal road has raised hopes that a fragile peace will hold in the country.

Jelena Aparac, chair of the UN's working group on mercenaries, said foreign military contractors were obstacles to progress towards elections planned for December and that their exit from Libya was “long overdue”.

Her comments followed an announcement that Libya's warring sides had on Friday reopened the main coastal road across the conflict's front line, a central element of last year’s ceasefire aimed at ending a decade-long war.

“Nine months after the ceasefire agreement calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya, mercenaries and private military and security contractors continue to operate in the country,” said Ms Aparac.

“Their continued recruitment and presence in Libya impedes progress in the peace process and constitutes an obstacle for the coming elections.”

The working group, made up of five experts, said in a statement that “well-trained and well-armed private contractors from Russia, Syria, Sudan and Chad” had intensified the conflict in Libya.

Their presence, as well as the weapons they bring into the country, are in breach of a UN arms embargo, and pose a threat to security in neighbouring countries in North Africa, the experts said.

The UN last year estimated that some 20,000 foreign mercenaries were fighting in Libya, where Turkey was militarily backing a UN-recognised government in Tripoli while Russia, Egypt and others supported a rival administration in the east.

Libya has been in turmoil since a 2011 Nato-backed uprising against then-leader Muammar Qaddafi, but a UN-led peace process brought about a ceasefire last summer and a unity government was formed in February.

Since then, however, there has been little agreement on key steps forward, including on a constitutional basis for the elections scheduled in December and for the unity government’s budget.

Against the backdrop of this slow progress, the announcement of the opening of the long-shuttered coastal road near Sirte was heralded by the UN as an important milestone.

“The opening of the coastal road is a critical step to further the implementation of the ceasefire agreement,” UN envoy Jan Kubis said in a statement on Friday.

“The next major step … is to commence the withdrawal of all mercenaries, foreign fighters and forces from Libya without delay, starting with the withdrawal of the first groups of foreign mercenaries and fighters from both sides.”

Updated: July 30, 2021, 3:15 PM