ROME – Italy, Germany and the United States pushed Monday for a cease-fire and de-escalation of tensions in Libya following a warning by Egypt that it would intervene militarily if Turkish-backed forces attack the strategic city of Sirte.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, said after talks in Rome that a cease-fire is urgent given the Egyptian threat. Di Maio also called for the quick naming of a new U.N. envoy and the strong enforcement of a U.N. arms embargo on Libya.
“If we stop the arrival of weapons, or strongly reduce them, we will be able to reduce the aggressiveness of the Libyan parties in this conflict,” Di Maio said.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi warned over the weekend that any attack on Sirte or the inland Jufra air base by Turkish-backed forces loyal to the U.N.-supported but weak government in Tripoli would amount to crossing a “red line.”
He said Egypt could intervene militarily with the intention of protecting its western border with the oil-rich country, and of bringing stability — including establishing conditions for a cease-fire.
The Tripoli-based government said it considered el-Sissi’s comments a “declaration of war,” while authorities in the east welcomed his support.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the world body has long been pressing for a cease-fire, saying “we all want a cessation of hostilities.”
He said acting U.N. envoy Stephanie Williams continues to shuttle between the warring sides and their foreign backers, urging a de-escalation and resumption of the U.N.-facilitated political process.
“The last thing that Libya needs right now is more fighting, more military mobilization, more transfer of weapons, more presence of either foreign fighters or mercenaries on its soil,” Dujarric said, responding to Egypt’s threats of military intervention.
Diplomats at the United Nations said the world body’s search for a new U.N. envoy to Libya ran aground when the Trump administration blocked two of the secretary general’s nominations, saying it wants one senior official solely tasked with negotiating a cease-fire and another running the U.N. mission. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door negotiations.
U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of Africa Command, and U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland meanwhile met Monday with Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj in the Libyan capital, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy.
It said the two U.S. officials stressed the “need for military pause and return to negotiations.”
“All sides need to return to U.N.-led ceasefire and political negotiations because this tragic conflict is robbing all Libyans of their future,” Townsend said.
Norland called for foreign countries supporting Libya’s rivals to stop “fueling the conflict, respect the U.N. arms embargo, and uphold commitments made at the Berlin Summit” earlier this year.
The German foreign minister said the Egyptian threat indicated that a further escalation was possible, making it “all the more urgent to agree on a cease-fire now.”
Di Maio, for his part, said Italy was prepared to provide even more contributions to a naval and air mission to enforce the U.N. arms embargo on Libya, saying it will be crucial even after a cease-fire is signed.
“In the coming days we will have talks with the Libyan parties to try to bring forward as soon as possible the signing of a cease-fire,” Di Maio said. “Even once there is a cease-fire, I think the (arms embargo) mission will continue to be important, because especially with a cease-fire, we have to limit the arrival of weapons in Libya.”
Italy is particularly concerned that any escalation of the conflict will unleash more waves of migrants onto smugglers’ boats headed for Italian shores. The coronavirus emergency in hard-hit Italy stemmed their arrivals, but authorities fear that the numbers will swell again with the health emergency easing and the return to the Mediterranean Sea of humanitarian rescue ships.
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Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
Eastern-based forces under Khalifa Hifter launched an offensive to try to take Tripoli in April last year. Hifter’s forces are backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli-allied militias are aided by Qatar, Italy and Turkey.
Dujarric said Hifter’s failed campaign to capture Tripoli set off a humanitarian crisis, with 1 million people in need of aid and almost a half million people internally displaced.
Tripoli-based forces with Turkish support gained the upper hand in the war earlier this month after retaking the capital’s airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city and a string of key towns near Tripoli. They threatened to retake Sirte, which could allow them to gain control of oil fields and facilities in the south that Hifter seized earlier this year as part of his offensive on Tripoli.
With the recent retreat of Hifter’s forces from their last western stronghold of Tarhuna and the discovery of several mass graves in the area, calls have mounted for a transparent investigation into possible war crimes. Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court prosecutor, said Monday that her office had received credible reports of 11 mass graves containing men, women and children.
In Geneva, the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council agreed unanimously on Monday to call for the immediate creation and deployment of a one-year fact-finding mission to document rights abuses and violations in Libya since 2016.
The 47-member-state body asked the U.N. human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, to appoint experts for the mission and called on Libyan authorities to grant “unhindered access” to the country and the right to speak with anyone they choose.
Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, welcomed the step as “a wake-up call to warlords and armed groups that they could be held accountable for serious crimes committed by their rank and file.”
Associated Press writers Samy Magdy in Cairo, David Rising in Berlin, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
This story was first published on June 22, 2020. It was updated on June 23, 2020 to correctly attribute details about the Trump administration blocking U.N. nominations to diplomats and not to the U.N. spokesman.