Rival Libyan factions met Monday for UN-led talks aimed at bringing a lasting peace to their war-torn North African country and preparing for elections.
The meeting in neighbouring Tunisia follows months of relative calm and a key ceasefire deal in October between the two major camps in the long-running conflict.
“You have the opportunity to end a tragic conflict,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told delegates in a video message at the opening ceremony. “Now it’s your turn to shape the future of your country.”
This week’s talks in Gammarth, near the Tunisian capital Tunis, aim to unify the country under a single executive and pave the way for national elections.
The UNSMIL-led dialogue follows months of relative calm in Libya, which tumbled into chaos following the toppling of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Last month the two main sides in the complex conflict signed a landmark ceasefire agreement, opening the way to a resumption of economically vital oil production and progress on efforts to end years of political deadlock.
“This is a unique opportunity,” UN acting envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams told journalists in Tunis. “There has been significant progress on the ground.”
The latest political talks, part of a multi-track process also involving military and economic negotiations, aim to unify the country under a single executive and pave the way for national elections.
“Elections need to be the ultimate objective here,” Williams added, calling for “a clear road map” towards holding polls as soon as possible.
Libya has been dominated by armed groups and divided between two bitterly opposed administrations: the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli and a rival administration in the east, backed by renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar, backed by Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, launched an offensive on Tripoli in April 2019 but was beaten back in June by the GNA with military support from Turkey in an operation that pushed Haftar’s troops back to the central coastal city of Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace.
The fighting left hundreds dead and displaced tens of thousands of people.
The warring factions returned to the negotiating table in September in UN-supported talks held in Morocco, Egypt and Switzerland.
Peter Millett, a former British ambassador to Libya, warned on the first day of talks that “if potential spoilers like Haftar and the militias don’t see themselves benefitting, hostilities could break out again”.
“The most important thing is a timeline for elections,” he said.
“It needs to be short, maximum nine months, with key milestones for implementing and a clear message from the international community that they will impose sanctions on anyone who obstructs it.”
Guterres urged world powers to support peace efforts and to respect a long-standing UN arms embargo, words echoed by the host of the talks, Tunisian President Kais Saied.
“This is a historic moment,” Saied told delegates at the opening ceremony. “We are able to overcome all difficulties and obstacles … when there is no interference from outside powers.”
Williams cited “progress on the ground in terms of confidence measures that have accompanied the military dialogue”, as well as the resumption of domestic flights to the country’s south and a surge in oil production to about one million barrels per day.
Libya’s oil production, a vital source of income, has been repeatedly halted as various groups seized and blockaded key installations and export terminals.
The Guards, under the control of Libya’s defence ministry before the country’s 2011 revolution, have since morphed into armed groups with shifting allegiances.
The 75 people taking part in the dialogue were selected by the UN to represent the country’s political, military and social makeup.
They joined on the condition that they would renounce any claim to take part in the resulting executive, which will face the task of dealing with a bleak financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has killed more than 900 people in Libya and severely stretched the country’s struggling health services.
“The status quo cannot continue,” Williams said, urging participants “to come with spirit of compromise to be willing to make concessions for the sake of Libya”.