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UN says Libyan rival forces resume talks to save cease-fire

Jamey Keaten and Samy Magdy
Associated Press

Geneva – Libya’s warring sides resumed Tuesday U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva aimed at salvaging a fragile cease-fire in the North African country, the U.N. said, even as eastern Libyan forces stepped up their attacks on the Libyan capital, hitting its port.

It appeared to be the first such attack on Tripoli’s strategic port since Libyan forces loyal to military commander Khalifa Hifter began their siege of the city almost a year ago.

Ghassan Salame, the head of the U.N. support mission in Libya, called the port attack a “big breach” of the cease-fire.

Ghassan Salame, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.

Footage shared online show thick black smoke rising from the dock areas of Tripoli, supposedly from the shelling.

Oil-rich Libya is split between rival governments based in its east and west, each backed by an array of foreign countries apparently jockeying for influence in order to control Libya’s resources.

The current cease-fire was brokered by Russia and Turkey on Jan. 12. But both sides have repeatedly violated the truce, which was supposed to deescalate the fight for control of the Libyan capital.

“We hope to be able in this second round to come to some kind of consensus about what a lasting cease-fire could look like in Libya,” Salame told reporters in Geneva.

Western Libyan forces led by Hifter rely on military assistance from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia. On the other side, Turkey, Italy and Qatar back the U.N.-supported but weakened government that Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj leads in Tripoli.

Militias allied with the Tripoli government said Tuesday that Hifter’s forces had shelled the port.

Hifter’s forces later added that they’d hit a depot for weapons and ammunition at the port, “in order to weaken the combat capabilities of the mercenaries who arrived from Syria” to fight alongside Tripoli-based militias.

Turkish officials later in the day confirmed that Hifter’s forces had fired on a Turkish ship near the docks. Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters the attack “missed its target” and Turkish forces fired back.

The U.N. support mission in Libya said five military representatives from each side have met indirectly Tuesday in Geneva, more than a week after they ended their first round of negotiations without striking a deal that would help end the fighting in Tripoli.

Salame said the talks would focus on stopping “the frequent violations of the truce,” as well as helping civilians displaced by the fighting return to the capital and its surrounding area.

He also said further talks on handling Libya’s suffering economy would take place in March. These will focus on “very sensitive issues,” including the fairer redistribution of state revenues across divided Libya, he said.

Salame also said that the two sides would hold political talks on Feb. 26 in Geneva.

Hifter meanwhile met on Tuesday with the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland in the eastern city of Benghazi, the embassy and Hifter’s office said.

It was the first visit for Norland to Libya since he was named the U.S. ambassador to the African country in August, the embassy officials said.

The U.S. envoy said Hifter stated his “commitment to a permanent ceasefire.”

Norland said he would visit Tripoli and meet with Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj “as soon as security conditions permit.”

In the previous round of military talks, the U.N. mission said there was “broad consensus” between the two sides on the “urgency” of safeguarding Libyan territorial integrity and stopping “the flow of non-Libyan fighters” into the country’s conflict.

Recently, Ankara has sent hundreds of Syrian fighters including militants affiliated with groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group to fight on behalf of the U.N.-supported government in Libya.

The Tripoli authorities and U.S. officials have also accused Hifter of relying on hundreds of Russian mercenaries. Sudanese armed groups from the Darfur region recently joined the fighting on both sides, according to a report by U.N. experts.

Powerful tribes loyal to the eastern the commander Hifter have also largely stopped the country’s oil production, after they seized last month several large oil export terminals along Libya’s eastern coast as well as its southern oil fields.

The country’s National Oil Corporation, which dominates Libya’s critical oil industry and is based in Tripoli, said losses from the oil closures have reached more than $1.6 billion as of Monday.

The daily oil production has since the closure fallen to 135,745 barrels a day from about 1.2 million. It put the daily losses at close to $59 million.

Libya has the ninth largest known oil reserves in the world and the biggest oil reserves in Africa.

The corporation reiterated its warning that the blockade is quickly depleting fuel that supplies Libyan power stations.

The Geneva talks come amid intensified diplomacy among world powers seeking to end the conflict that has ravaged Libya for nine years and increasingly drawn in foreign powers.

European Union foreign ministers agreed Monday to launch a new maritime effort focused on enforcing the U.N arms embargo around the North African country.

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed.

The fighting for Tripoli has taken a heavy toll on migrants and refugees sheltering in detention centers in the capital. Libya is a major way station for those fleeing poverty and conflict in Africa and seeking to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

The Libyan coast guard intercepted more than 300 migrants off Libya’s coast and returned them on Monday to the capital where they ended up in an overcrowded detention center, the U.N. migration agency said.

Human rights groups have criticized the migrant facilities in Libya, saying they are rife with abuses and dangerous conditions. The International Organization for Migration said Tuesday more than 1,500 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya so far this year.

Magdy reported from Cairo.