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Merkel upbeat over cease-fire pledge ahead of Libya meeting

Geir Moulson
Associated Press

Berlin – German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed assurances Thursday from Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter that he would stick to a cease-fire as world powers prepare to gather in Berlin for a summit on the North African nation’s future.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a news conference with Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic after a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.

Merkel’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, visited Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi on Thursday to press Hifter to attend the conference in the German capital Sunday. After their meeting, Maas tweeted that Hifter had agreed in principle to accept the invitation and “contribute to making it a success” while pledging to respect the cease-fire.

“It’s good news that he is prepared to abide by the cease-fire,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin. She said one of the goals of the summit would be to make sure that a U.N.-backed arms embargo on the country is also respected.

The meeting in Berlin, to which the United States, Russia, France, Egypt and others have also been invited, aims to bring together many of the countries that have interests in Libya’s ongoing civil war.

Since the 2011 ouster and killing of Libya’s longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the country has sunk further into chaos and turmoil. The country is divided into rival administrations, the Tripoli-based one in the west and the one based in the country’s east, supported by Hifter’s forces.

Hifter’s forces have been on the offensive since April, laying siege on Tripoli in an effort to capture the capital and battling militias aligned with the U.N.-supported government based there. Hifter claims his march on the capital aims to liberate Tripoli from a weak government that had allied itself with “terrorist” militias.

Maas’s trip to Benghazi, Hifter’s stronghold, came two days after Libya’s rival leaders left Moscow without reaching an agreement. Russia and Turkey proposed a cease-fire last week. Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, the head of the Tripoli government, and Hifter went to Moscow on Monday for talks with Russian and Turkish diplomats and military officials.

Sarraj and Hifter, who didn’t meet directly, considered a draft document spelling out details of a truce proposed jointly by Russia and Turkey. Sarraj signed the draft before departing, while Hifter requested more time to consider it and then left Moscow without signing.

Maas spoke to Sarraj last week and said before his trip that he would be meeting Hifter on behalf of the European Union’s foreign ministers.

“Our message is clear: no one can win this conflict militarily,” Maas said before leaving Berlin. “A window is now opening to free the conflict from international influence and so open the way to a political process and inter-Libyan negotiations on a post-war order” under U.N. supervision.

“I hope that the parties will take this opportunity to put the future of Libya back in Libyan hands,” Maas added. “This now requires readiness for a real cease-fire and both parties’ participation in the dialogue formats proposed by the United Nations.”

Sarraj’s government says Hifter is “an aggressor” seeking to turn Libya into “a military dictatorship.” The Tripoli government wants Hifter’s forces to withdraw from areas they seized since April, a demand Hifter is not expected to comply with.

Britain announced Thursday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will attend the Berlin talks.

“The conflict in Libya has escalated in recent months and threatens to destabilize the wider region,” said Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack. “This meeting is an opportunity for the U.K. to come together with international partners and countries in the region to support efforts towards a cease-fire and encourage a return to United Nations-led talks.”

Associated Press writers Noha ElHennawy in Cairo, Jill Lawless in London and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.