Libya’s ‘last chance’ peace talks off to an uncertain start
LONDON // UN-brokered Libya peace talks got off to an uncertain start in Geneva on Wednesday after one of the country’s warring governments refused to show up.
The General National Congress (GNC), which holds Tripoli and much of western Libya, announced on Tuesday that it had not been consulted about details of the talks and would not come.
Instead, interlocutors found themselves talking to more than 17 Libyans dominated by members of the internationally recognised government, the House of Representatives, based in the eastern city of Tobruk.
Fighting between the two governments has raged across the country since July, leaving hundreds dead, more than 400,000 displaced and the economy in ruins.
The UN special envoy to Libya, Bernadino Leon, insisted the door “remained open” for the GNC to join talks planned to continue for several weeks, and said some members of Libya Dawn, the congress’s militia arm, had showed up.
“There are representatives of Libya Dawn here, many important actors from Libya Dawn are here today,” said Mr Leon. “It is not one camp that is refusing to come. We have many people from both camps here today.
The talks were described earlier this week as the “last chance which must be seized” by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.
Welcoming the start of the talks, Mr Leon said his aim was to persuade both “camps” to agree a unity government, which would be responsible for agreeing on a ceasefire and monitoring the militias which have brought years of chaos to the country.
But many think he faces an uphill task. “The problem is, neither side distrusts the other,” said one western diplomat.
Mr Leon said he was encouraged by several days of quiet on Libya’s front lines, only for news to break during the talks that the air force had bombed an oil tanker off the coast, while fierce fighting began in Benghazi between government forces and militants from Ansar Al Sharia.
In Tripoli, Libya Dawn’s media office denounced the peace talks, despite the presence of some of their officials in Geneva, with a statement criticising Mr Leon for going ahead with the talks despite the decision by the GNC not to attend.
Mr Leon said he was encouraged that Misrata, Libya’s third city, which supplies the most powerful brigades in Libya Dawn, had nevertheless expressed support for the talks. “Misrata municipality met, they came out with a statement saying we want these talks,” he said.
The UN talks have already been postponed three times since December 9, and such is the hostility between the two sides that Mr Leon announced that the conference was taking the form of “proximity talks”, with the two sides in different rooms while UN diplomats move between them.
Mr Leon’s first problem is that each government insists it is the only legitimate entity and must be recognised as such. Tobruk says that as the internationally recognised government, it must have sole authority in Libya.
The GNC, the former parliament which was reconvened by Libya Dawn in the summer, insists it is legitimate after a supreme court ruled last year that parts of the election that created the Tobruk parliament were invalid.
If Mr Leon can get the two sides talking, his next task will be finding a ceasefire plan that holds for a battlefront that crosses Libya.
Recent months have seen fighting in the west of the country between Libya Dawn and Zintan militias, while government forces continue battling Ansar Al Sharia, declared a terrorist organisation by the UN in November.
And there have been several weeks of bloody fighting near Libya’s oil ports which saw Al Sidra, the largest port, engulfed in flames after rockets hit oil storage tanks.
The fighting has reduced oil production to 300,000 barrels a day, less than Libya’s spending needs, and both governments are coping with cash shortages and cuts to power and petrol.
Meanwhile, units of the extremist militant group ISIL have begun emerging, taking advantage of the chaos to set up what the Pentagon calls training camps in the eastern city of Derna.
Last week a group calling itself IS Libya claimed responsibility for the kidnap of 21 Egyptian Christians, guest workers abducted from the city of Sirte and still missing.
Updated: January 15, 2015 04:00 AM