Libya welcomes calls for truce

Noha Elhennawy

CAIRO–Libya’s United Nations-supported government has welcomed Russian and Turkish calls for a ceasefire in the country’s ongoing civil war, though its rivals appeared cool to the intervention and refrained from endorsing the idea Thursday.
The Tripoli-based government led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj released a statement late Wednesday expressing its full support for “the resumption of the political process and the elimination of the spectre of war.”
Libya is currently governed by dueling authorities in the east and in the west. The east-based government is backed by the self-named Libyan National Army, commanded by ex-general Khalifa Hifter. It is supported by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia. The western, Tripoli-based government receives aid from Turkey, Qatar and Italy.
The calls for a stop to the fighting came amid a flurry of diplomatic activity by European powers Wednesday. Turkish President Recep Tayep Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin released a joint statement after a meeting in Istanbul calling for a Jan. 12 ceasefire between the warring eastern and western Libyan forces.
Esatern Libyan forces have yet to officially respond to the Russian-Turkish ceasefire calls. Brig. Gen. Khaled al-Mahjoub, head of the LNA mobilization department told The Associated Press that military operations are ongoing around Tripoli and the coastal city of Misrata. He said that any truce “is a matter that only Commander Hifter can decide on.”
Clashes have continued between the two sides this week. Fawzy Onis, a health ministry spokesman with the Tripoli-based government, said artillery shelling by Hifter’s forces killed two paramedics on Thursday near the coastal city of Sirte. The LNA recently seized the town.
According to the U.N., more than 200 civilians have been killed and more than 128,000 people have fled their homes since the conflict stepped up in early April of last year. The fighting has threatened to plunge Libya into violent chaos rivaling the 2011 conflict that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
In their joint statement, the Russian and Turkish presidents did not mention the conditions of their suggested ceasefire.
“It is more like a statement of intent from Russia and Turkey, rather than a deal that is certain to materialize,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Rome. She said that any Tripoli-approved truce would require Hifter to withdraw from areas surrounding Tripoli, which is unlikely to happen.
Since the outbreak of the conflict in April, the Tripoli-based government known as the Government of National Accord has expressed its willingness to enact a ceasefire and to return to the negotiating table only if its rivals halt their offensive.
In recent weeks, the fighting has intensified around Tripoli as Erdogan has vowed to send troops to back Sarraj. Turkey’s parliament authorized the deployment of troops last week. Turkey has already begun sending Turkish soldiers to Libya for training and co-ordination.
The Turkish offer of military support is meant to counter that which Russia has been providing Hifter. An agreement between Erdogan and Putin could mean that both will scale down their involvement to avoid further escalation.
“If Turkey can assure that some military aid helping Hifter is withdrawn, there is no longer a need for Turkey to deploy massively,” said Gazzini.
After a meeting with the Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune on Thursday, Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on his Facebook page that the E.U. must “work together with the countries neighbouring Libya to find a solution to the present crisis, which at the moment sees in the cease-fire our principal aim.”
The Turkish decision to send reinforcements to Tripoli has elicited strong responses from European governments including Italy, Sarraj’s main European backer. Earlier this week, the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy condemned Turkey’s plans to deploy troops to Libya.