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All eyes on Haftar as key players arrive for Libya peace talks

The UN could now be in a prime position to reassert control over the Libyan peace prcess

UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame ahead of the international peace conference on Libya, in Palermo, Italy, on November 12, 2018. Reuters
UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame ahead of the international peace conference on Libya, in Palermo, Italy, on November 12, 2018. Reuters

Italy launched its latest push to settle a long-standing crisis in Libya on Monday, but there was no sign of one of the North African country’s key political players, despite diplomatic attempts to ensure he participates in negotiations.

General Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) controls the east of the country, has put Italy in a tight corner by stirring speculation that he will boycott a two-day conference in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, thereby undermining attempts by Rome to regain diplomatic control over a stalled political process.

An Italian official, who refused to be named, told The National on Monday that Mr Haftar was on a plane to Palermo and is scheduled to arrive later in the evening.

Leaders of the three other main factions in Libya have already arrived at the summit, organised in collaboration with the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

Fayez Serraj, the head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli; Ageela Saleh, leader of the Libyan House of Representatives; and Khaled Meshri, head of the State Council, an advisory body to the GNA all met with UN special envoy Ghassan Salame on Monday ahead of the summit’s official launch.

Mr Salame also held meetings with a number of other Libyan representatives and international delegations, including the foreign ministers of Libya and Tunisia, the deputy foreign minister of Russia, and the Libyan Ambassador to the EU.

An Italian government spokesperson said a full list of attendees would be issued later on Monday, including confirmation on Mr Haftar’s attendance.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is expected to welcome the heads of delegations in Palermo’s luxurious Villa Igiea hotel before parties share a working dinner. The main talks will be held in a single session on Tuesday, leaving room for Mr Haftar to make a late arrival.

Mr Conte on Monday dismissed doubts that Mr Haftar would be absent from talks.

"I expect him to be present since there is no doubt that he is one of the decisive players of the stabilisation of his country," Italian daily La Stampa quoted him as saying.

The Italian official also expressed hopes that negotiations in Palermo would contribute to an understanding between Mr Haftar and his rival Mr Al Sarraj.

Despite Mr Conte’s assurances, an official from the LNA told The National on Sunday that Mr Haftar will not attend. The source also said Mr Haftar recieved a personal visit from the head of Italian intelligence who tried to persuade him to change his position.

LNA sources also told Italian press agency Ansa on Sunday that Mr Haftar was boycotting in protest at the attendance of Qatar and that of apparent Al Qaeda-linked groups, which they did not name.

According to analysts, Mr Haftar’s absence would serve as a blow to both the conference itself as well as attempts by Italy to style itself as the main peacemaker in Libya.

Italy has been trying to reassert control over the Libyan peace process after French President Emmanuel Macron convened a surprise summit in Paris in May in a bid to push for Libyan elections on December 10.

“The reports over Haftar's potential no-show in Palermo are embarrassing for Italy,” Tim Eaton, an analyst with London-based Chatham House, told The National.

“A relative lack of high-level buy-in from international leaders and a lack of clarity over the potential outcomes of the conference means that it will be unclear to rival Libyan figures what they can achieve in Palermo.”

If the 75-year-old general were to forgo the conference, achieving meaningful commitment to the UN plan announced by Mr Salame may also be difficult.

The UN special envoy last week announced that a plan to hold elections in December was unrealistic. He proposed, instead, a peace conference in the first weeks of 2019 leading to “an electoral process starting in 2019”.

However, Mr Eaton believes the UN is now in a prime position to reassert control over the Libyan peace process, considering that both French and Italian efforts have been hampered.

“If the outcome is simply to reinforce an amended UN action plan, and economic and security plans already under way, then this conference will hardly represent Italian leadership over Libya's stabilisation,” he said.

“Indeed, now that France's attempts to force elections in December have also been cast aside, Palermo may actually best represent an opportunity for the UN to reassert its position and rise above Italian-French rivalry.”

Mr Salame’s deputy, Stephanie T. Williams said on Monday that more work needed to be done to achieve peace and security in Libya.

“Success will depend on the unequivocal and sustained support of Libyan authorities and the international community alike,” she told the gathering.

Updated: November 12, 2018 10:05 PM