In the United Nations-led talks in Tunisia, the Libyans have begun to work out the powers of a proposed interim government in cautious hopes of ending a decades-old conflict.
Tensions subsided, however, when rival governments vying for control of the oil-rich North African country also held separate military talks in the central Libyan city of Sirte.
The Tripoli-based unity government warned that a ceasefire agreed last month could be in jeopardy. She said her Moscow-backed rivals launched live fire drills and accused Russian mercenaries of preventing her delegation from landing at an airport near Sirte.
“We do not want these steps to lead to the failure of the peaceful dialogue,” said the military command of the Tripoli-based government of the National Agreement (GNA) in a tweet on Thursday.
“But we will not accept negotiating under pressure from mercenaries and their air defenses.”
Libya, a major oil producer, has witnessed violence since a NATO-backed uprising in 2011, toppling and killing veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The country has been dominated by armed groups since 2015 and divided between two bitterly opposed governments: the United Nations-mediated GNA and a rival government in the east supported by renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar, supported by Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, launched an offensive against Tripoli in April 2019, but was repulsed by the GNA with military support from Turkey in June in an operation that pushed its troops back to the central coastal city of Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace.
Hundreds of people died in the fighting and tens of thousands were displaced.
The warring factions returned to the negotiating table in United Nations-supported talks in Morocco, Egypt and Switzerland in September.
The UN mission in Libya, UNSMIL, is also leading the military talks near the Sirte ceasefire line.
Stephanie Williams, UN interim envoy for Libya, said the final round of talks was “the best opportunity to end the division” since Haftar’s offensive failed.
The delegates in Tunisia had agreed on a preliminary roadmap for “free, fair, inclusive and credible presidential and parliamentary elections” within 18 months, she said on Wednesday.
However, observers have questioned the legitimacy of the 75 delegates chosen by the United Nations to represent existing institutions and the diversity of Libyan society.
Libyan delegates attend the opening of the Libyan Forum for Political Dialogue, which is taking place on the outskirts of the Tunisian capital [Fethi Belaid/AFP]Even the most recent negotiations, following several failed peace talks, remain a victim of potential spoilers such as armed groups and foreign powers.
In a strong reminder of the lawlessness that continues to plague Libya, prominent lawyer and rights activist Hanan al-Barassi was shot dead by unknown gunmen on Tuesday in the street in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The timing of her murder sparked speculation as to whether it should spoil the talks held by the United Nations.
Fear of “Russian sabotage”
Foreign actors also continue to play a major role in the developments. The GNA accused the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization that supports Haftar, this week of preventing its delegation from landing at the nearby Qardabiya Air Force Base during the Sirte Talks.
The shadowy Russian military entrepreneur, who is allegedly close to the Kremlin, has been accused of numerous violations in Libya.
The GNA military command issued a series of angry tweets warning of threats against “the prospect of a permanent ceasefire”.
“Why does our delegation have to land 170 kilometers? [105 miles] further east, although there are two airports in Sirte? “Spokesman Mohammed Gnunu wrote.
The GNA military command also cited live fire exercises by pro-Haftar forces in the area, saying that people from Haftar’s “inner circle” were leading the meetings.
However, UNSMIL said the joint commission met on Thursday in a “positive spirit”.
The two sides “agreed to withdraw all foreign forces and mercenaries from their positions on the front lines in order to be transported to Benghazi and Tripoli as a first step to begin the process of their departure from Libyan territory,” said Salim Raad. Head of UNSMIL’s Department of Security Institutions, adding that both sides had agreed to meet again.
The huge Qardabiya Air Force Base is an important location for long-range air defense and is roughly in the middle of the southern coast of the Mediterranean.
Jack Watling, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute’s think tank in London, said Russia wants to keep leverage in the talks.
“Local air defenders feel safer with a sanitary airspace,” he said. “But Russia also shows that it can sabotage that [military] Talks to maintain leverage. “
Moscow could use its presence to demand the lifting of sanctions for annexing Crimea in 2014, he said.
“Has [the Qardabiya incident] sabotaged the conversations? Probably not, but Russia has emphasized that it could if it wanted, ”he said.