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World leaders bolster troubled Libya ahead of key election

Sam Magdy and Sylvie Corbet
Associated Press

Paris — France is hosting an international conference on Libya on Friday as the North African country heads into long-awaited elections next month, a vote that regional and world powers hope will pull the oil-rich nation out of its decade-old chaos.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and several world leaders are taking part in the Paris conference, and are expected to push for transparent, credible elections. They will also urge the withdrawal of mercenaries and foreign forces from Libya, as stated in last year’s U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended fighting between rival factions in the country.

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, welcomes Vice President Kamala Harris to the Paris Conference on Libya in Paris, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

Libya has been engulfed in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gadhafi. The oil-rich country was for years split between rival governments — one based in the capital, Tripoli, and the other in the eastern part of the country. Each side is backed by different foreign powers and militias.

Friday’s conference is co-chaired by France, Germany, Italy, Libya, and the United Nations, and attended by international and regional high-level officials.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a video message that “the presence of foreign elements in Libya’s internal political and security affairs is a continued grave concern."

“I call once more for all foreign interference to end,” he said. “Libya today is closer than it has been for many years to solving its internal crisis and breaking the cycle of political transitions."

“We cannot miss this opportunity," Guterres said, warning that “any party that deliberately undermines or sabotages peace must be held accountable.”

France's President Emmanuel Macron, right, greets President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades before a conference with several world leaders in Paris, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. France is hosting an international conference on Libya on Friday as the North African country is heading into long-awaited elections next month.

Harris said Monday she will take part in the conference “to demonstrate our strong support for the people of Libya as they plan for elections.”

Also attending were Libyan interim leaders Mohammad Younes Menfi, head of the presidential council, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush.

The conference comes less than six weeks before Libyans are scheduled to cast their ballots in the first round of the presidential elections on Dec. 24. Parliamentary elections are to take place nearly two months later, along with a second round of the presidential vote.

The long-awaited vote, however, still faces challenges, including unresolved issues over election laws and occasional infighting among armed groups. Other obstacles include the deep rift that remains between the country’s east and west and the presence of thousands of foreign fighters and troops. The U.N. has estimated that there have been at least 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya over the past few years, including Russians, Syrians, Turkish, Sudanese, and Chadians.

France's President Emmanuel Macron waits for world leaders before a conference in Paris.

A leading rights group questioned Thursday whether Libyan authorities can hold free and fair elections. Human Rights Watch criticized what it said were Libya’s restrictive laws that undermine freedom of speech and association, as well as the presence of armed groups accused of intimidating, attacking and detaining journalists and political activists.

“The main questions leaders at the summit should ask are: can Libyan authorities ensure an environment free of coercion, discrimination, and intimidation of voters, candidates, and political parties?” it said in a statement.

In July, the U.N. special envoy for Libya, Jan Kubis, accused “spoilers” of trying to obstruct the vote to unify the divided nation. The Security Council has warned that any individual or group undermining the electoral process could face U.N. sanctions.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said this week, "We want to see an election which the Libyan people can believe in, that is credible, and that is in line with the past agreements.”

Politicians and warlords in western Libya issued statements this week opposing holding the vote according to the laws ratified by the country’s parliament. Khaled al-Meshri, head of Tripoli-based Supreme Council of State, went further and threatened in televised comments to resort to violence to prevent powerful military commander Khalifa Hifter, a potential frontrunner in the presidential race, from taking office if he is elected.

Libya’s civil war escalated in 2019, as Hifter, who commands the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, launched an offensive to take Tripoli from armed militias loosely allied with the then U.N.-supported but weak government in the country’s capital.

Hifter, allied with an east-based administration, was backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France. However, his 14-month campaign and march on Tripoli ultimately failed in June 2020, after Qatar and Turkey intensified their military support for the government in Tripoli, with the latter sending mercenaries and troops to help shore up western Libya militias.

Hifter's forces released a statement late on Thursday, pledging to initiate the withdrawal of the first batch of foreign fighters from areas they control. They are expected to include 300 fighters who will return to their home countries under the supervision of the U.N. mission in Libya, the statement said. The move is in line with a demand made earlier by the French government to roll out a plan for the withdrawal of foreign troops, said Hifter’s army.

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Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.