x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UN mediator pessimistic on Libyan peace deal

During meetings with officials in Tripoli and Benghazi, Abdelilah al Khatib said both Col Qaddafi's government and the rebels showed support for a ceasefire. But both had also made statements that suggested they would not lay down their arms.

NEW YORK // As rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi exchanged gunfire and ground across Libya on Monday, a UN mediator offered a bleak prognosis for brokering a peace deal between the rivals.

The UN's special envoy to Libya, Abdelilah al Khatib, told the UN Security Council late on Monday that it is "very difficult to know how long it will take for the Libyan conflict to be resolved" with neither loyalists nor insurgents likely to back down.

A coalition of Western and Arab nations launching air strikes against Col Qaddafi's forces has failed to give an upper hand to the rebels, a mix of protesters and renegade soldiers who lack the experience and firepower of the loyalists.

During meetings with officials in Tripoli and Benghazi, Mr al Khatib said both Col Qaddafi's government and the rebels showed support for a ceasefire. But both had also made statements that suggested they would not lay down their arms.

Rebel forces, co-ordinated through the interim Transitional National Council, insisted on loyalists withdrawing snipers and other forces from Libya's contested cities and "allowing the population to freely express their position", he said.

"They indicated that the aim of the people's uprising is to see the departure of Col Qaddafi and that a ceasefire alone was not sufficient to end the conflict in Libya," Mr Khatib said.

While Tripoli also expressed willingness to lay down weapons and join rebels at the negotiating table, Mr Khatib noted media reports in which government officials made statements "indicating rejection to a ceasefire".

Mr al Khatib said more than 400,000 people have fled Libya since demonstrations against Col Qaddafi began in February, the start of a protest movement that escalated into an armed conflict.

Stalemate on the front line of fighting in eastern Libya, defections from Col Qaddafi's cabal and the plight of civilians caught up in fighting, or facing food and fuel shortages, have prompted a flurry of diplomacy to try to end the civil war.

The Security Council meeting took place against a backdrop of a "very fluid and dynamic" situation in Libya, according to the White House spokesman Jay Carney, in which territory was changing hands between rebels and loyalists.

The US, Britain and France and have kept open the option of providing further support, weapons and training to Libya's rebels, claiming that such a move would not breach the UN weapons embargo if it ultimately spared civilian lives.

On Monday, the US withdrew its fighter jets from the air campaign in Libya, officials said. The US had planned to halt combat missions and Tomahawk cruise missile launches at the weekend but accepted a Nato request to continue the operations for another 48 hours until Monday.

Nestor Osorio, the UN ambassador for Colombia, which holds the Security Council's rotating presidency this month, outlined "different interpretations" of the embargo within the 15-nation body. The veto-wielding members Russia and China oppose arming the insurgents.

One senior UN diplomat warned against "embarking on a tricky route" of arming rebels without a "thorough sense" of the political forces that shape the insurgency, a poorly understood and makeshift grouping of citizens, defected soldiers and radicals.

Critics draw parallels between arming Libyan rebels and US support for the Islamists fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s who later formed the Taliban and al Qa'eda. Others point to Somalia, which has been torn apart by civil conflict for two decades.

Mr Carney, the White House spokesman, said the US is "assessing the opposition" and "planning for a post-Qaddafi Libya" but stressed that the outcome must be in line with "national security interest, in terms of our due diligence and assessing the opposition".

jreinl@thenational.ae