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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

New UN envoy to Libya vows 'respect' for sovereignty

Ghassan Salame makes first visit to Tripoli since being appointed to try and end crisis in conflict-ridden country

Ghassan Salame, the UN special envoy for Libya, with prime minister Fayez Al Sarraj of the UN-backed Government of National Accord during his first visit to Tripoli since being appointed to the post. Mahmud Turkia / AFP / August 5, 2017
Ghassan Salame, the UN special envoy for Libya, with prime minister Fayez Al Sarraj of the UN-backed Government of National Accord during his first visit to Tripoli since being appointed to the post. Mahmud Turkia / AFP / August 5, 2017

The new UN envoy to Libya began his first visit to the conflict-plagued country on Saturday with a pledge to respect its sovereignty and unity.

Ghassan Salame, a Lebanese academic and former culture minister, takes over from Martin Kobler with the task of leading political unity talks between rival factions in the deeply divided country.

He flew in to Mitiga airport, a former airbase in Tripoli, and held talks with Fayez Al Sarraj, the embattled head of a UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) whose authority is contested by a rival administration in eastern Libya.

"I assume my role with the utmost respect for the national sovereignty, independence and unity of Libya," Mr Salame after the talks at the prime minister's office in the capital.

The talks focused on the economic, political and security challenges facing Libya since its 2011 uprising that ousted and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the UN envoy said.

He said the meeting with Mr Al Sarraj, also attended by foreign minister Mohamed Al Taher Siala, had been "constructive" and that they had "agreed on the urgency to end the suffering of the Libyan people".

The UN mission would return in stages to its headquarters in Tripoli, which it had left in the aftermath of fierce fighting in 2014 between rival militias.

Mr Al Sarraj said he briefed Mr Salame on an agreement he reached with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the armed forces loyal to a rival administration in eastern Libya, for a ceasefire, political talks and elections.

The deal was struck last month at talks hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, and it has been endorsed by the UN Security Council.

It is the latest attempt to put an end to six years of chaos in oil-rich Libya where rival militias and administrations have been vying to control the country's wealth and cities.

The chaos has hampered Libya's efforts to rebuild its economy, which is heavily dependent on oil, and improve condition for its war-weary citizens who complain of water and electricity shortages and spiralling prices.

People-trafficking from Libya has also been a source of great concern for Europe.

The United Nations has been struggling for months to relaunch talks on a deal reached in 2015 on setting up a national unity government that has been rejected by Field Marshal Haftar and other factions.

Mr Al Sarraj has struggled to assert his authority across Libya since he took office in Tripoli in March 2016, and the deal he struck with Field Marshal Haftar last month is seen as a new attempt to restore stability in Libya.

"It is important to step forward and complete what we started," Mr Al Sarraj said, referring to the UN-backed political agreement struck in December 2015 that paved the way for the creation of his unity government.

Last month, Mr Al Sarraj called for a referendum on a draft constitution approved by a special elected panel following years of wrangling.

If passed, the draft text would make Libya a republic with a president and two houses of parliament. Tripoli would remain the capital, Islam the state religion and Islamic law a source of legislation.

Mr Al Sarraj also announced a political road map for the country, with presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in March.

Under Qaddafi's four-decade dictatorship Libya had no constitution.