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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

United States backs UN efforts to resolve Libya crisis

Rex Tillerson and his British counterpart presented a united front as they backed the plan of Libya’s UN envoy to push for peace and elections in 2018

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, left and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hold a press conference after their meeting on Libya at Lancaster House in London.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, left and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hold a press conference after their meeting on Libya at Lancaster House in London.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson threw his weight behind the UN’s mediation efforts in Libya in an apparent rebuke to squabbling European nations running their own diplomatic initiatives to restore peace.

Mr Tillerson said that the UN’s Libya envoy Ghassan Salame had the “full support of the United States” as the special representative prepares to outline his plan for national elections to end years of chaos following the 2011 toppling of Muammar Qaddafi.

Mr Tillerson was speaking after a meeting in London with his British counterpart Boris Johnson, Mr Salame, Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for Foreign Affairs; Angelino Alfano, the Italian foreign minister; Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister and Nicolas de Riviere, political director of the French foreign ministry.

Mr Tillerson said that he was keen to ensure that Isil did not re-emerge amid the failure to get the country under control as rival militias continue to feud in the divided country.

“We think it’s time to focus mediation efforts in one location at the UN under his [Salame’s] leadership,” said Mr Tillerson at a joint press conference with Mr Johnson. “I think we had very strong unity among the group that met today to support the special representative.”

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Italy became the first Western diplomatic mission to reopen its embassy in January and had taken the lead in trying to bring peace to its former colony. It was angered when France launched its own efforts this year.

The country has had rival governments in east and west since 2014. Italy has thrown its weight firmly behind Fayez al-Serraj, head of Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli. Johnson last month met with Khalifa Haftar, the dominant figure in the east of the country, but who Italy regards with great suspicion.

In July, the rival leaders pledged in Paris to work towards elections in 2018 and a conditional ceasefire, but Haftar immediately played down the commitments.

Mr Johnson told reporters on Thursday that it was realistic for the country to hold elections by autumn 2018. Mr Johnson said that resolving conflict in Libya was a vital strategic goal with the country acting as the “front line” of a common struggle against terrorism and illegal migration.

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UK Minister calls on Libyan leaders to curb their 'selfish' interests

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Mr Salame, who provided a summary of meetings with the key players in Libya to the London meeting, is due to present his plans to break the deadlock in Libya in New York next week.

He has said that new constitutional and electoral laws would have to be written to ensure any vote brought lasting change. That will entail a redrawing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) – which is due to expire on Monday – and accept the political reality that requires for Mr Haftar to play a role in the country’s future.

“Would it be premature to hold the elections within a year? I happen to think that could be about the right timescale," said Mr Johnson.

“It is very important however, that you don't do it too fast and that you get the political groundwork done first," he added. “There has to be a constitution, there has to be an accepted basis for those elections to take place.”

The meeting was an opportunity for the United States to inject leadership into a programme that had been drifting with Italy, France and Arab states all playing key roles in diplomatic efforts, said analyst Shashank Joshi, of the Royal United Services Institute based in London.

He said that the Italian approach based on its own narrow strategic interests was being questioned by the United States. “It’s the first really serious round of diplomatic activity that Tillerson has been involved with,” he said. “They’re trying to achieve a more coordinated position on some of these issues.”

The politicians also discussed recovery efforts in the Caribbean in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, their response to threats from North Korea and Iran, and the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Burma.

Mr Johnson said the suffering of the Rohingya people was an "abomination" and called on Burma’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi to use her “moral capital” to take on the country’s powerful military to halt the violence against the Muslim group.