The powerful interior minister of Libya’s United Nations-recognised government, seen as a contender for the post of prime minister, has expressed hope that bringing stability to his war-torn country would become a top priority for the incoming Biden administration.
He also announced an upcoming major offensive by his Turkey-backed Libyan government forces in the country’s west to go after armed groups and human smugglers, and invited the United States to assist.
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“Our hopes were greatly lifted” by Joe Biden’s US election victory, Fathi Bashagha told The Associated Press earlier this week. “We hope that the new administration has a major role in Libya’s stability and reconciliation.”
Bashagha, a former air force pilot and businessman, said he would be ready to take on the role of prime minister in a yet-to-be-formed unity government that could follow peace negotiations between Libya’s warring sides.
Oil-rich Libya was plunged into chaos after a 2011 NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi and split the country between the UN-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the east.
Each side is backed by an array of local militias as well as regional and foreign powers.
Since last year, the two sides have been holding UN-led talks to name an interim government before elections later in 2021, but have so far failed to agree on a voting mechanism to do so. Bashagha’s name was floated as a candidate for prime minister, observers of the talks say.
In October, the warring sides agreed to a ceasefire, which raised expectations of a peaceful resolution, and said foreign fighters would leave Libya.
Bashagha, speaking from Tripoli, said the withdrawal of foreign forces would be gradual. The rival eastern-based authorities have been bolstered by Russian mercenaries.
Meanwhile, Turkey sent its own troops, Syrian mercenaries, and drones to shore up the Tripoli-based government. Both Russia and Turkey are eyeing contracts worth billions of dollars.
The interior minister said he told Russia that Libya is prepared to talk business if the mercenaries leave.
Bashagha also credited US efforts in helping defeat ISIL (ISIS) fighters in the coastal city of Sirte in 2016. In 2019, the US said its air strikes in southern Libya killed dozens of members of the local ISIL affiliate. Bashagha said cooperation with the United States is continuing.
But he warned armed groups regained a foothold during an attempt by eastern-based renegade Libyan military commander Khalifa Hifter to capture Tripoli. Haftar’s forces have also targeted ISIL fighters in their strongholds and last year said they killed the top ISIL figure in Libya.
Bashagha said he hoped the US would back the upcoming operation in the west. Turkey has already pledged support, he said. “We hope the US will assist us … to finish off terrorist elements that have infiltrated Libya.”
Patchwork of militias
The Trump administration’s position on Libya has at times been confusing. The US State Department condemned Haftar’s push on Tripoli, but then President Trump also made a phone call to the renegade commander, praising him on “fighting terrorism”. The administration later repeatedly spoke out against the Russian mercenaries employed by Haftar, who is also backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Since becoming interior minister in 2018, Bashagha has positioned himself as one of the most powerful figures in western Libya. He cultivated ties with Turkey, France and the US, but also with Egypt and Russia – his nominal rivals in the conflict. Last month in Tripoli, he hosted a foreign ministry and senior intelligence delegation from Egypt.
But his ministry has also struggled to control the patchwork of militias that hold sway in Tripoli and western Libya. Bashagha said he plans to tackle the problem by identifying militias that should be disarmed and those that could be assimilated into the security apparatus. But he said he has faced problems in implementing the plan, alleging some armed groups are allied with other Tripoli officials and control some institutions, such as the intelligence apparatus.
Libya was plagued by corruption under Gaddafi and in the tumultuous years that have followed his removal. “The problem is that some of the parts, institutions of the state provide support to these militias,” Bashagha said.
The UN-backed government remains heavily dependent on the militias to battle its eastern rivals. But the militias are not easily controlled and though they, with Turkish support, beat back Haftar’s year-long offensive on Tripoli, some have also been responsible for kidnappings, infighting and civilian casualties.
For its part, the Tripoli government has faced criticism for its handling of the thousands of migrants who transit through Libya, attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.
A 2019 AP investigation found that militias in western Libya torture, extort and otherwise abuse migrants for ransom in detention centres, often under the UN’s nose and in compounds that receive millions in European money. Conditions for migrants remain dangerous in Tripoli, according to rights groups and the UN.
Bashagha said he closed down illegal shelters and was working with the UN to monitor conditions in the remaining ones, but more funds were needed to maintain them. He also pointed to the arrest in October of Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, one of the country’s most wanted human traffickers, two years after the UN levelled sanctions against him.
He said his new operation in the country’s west would also target migrant smugglers and could help address the root of the problem.
“The security and stability of Libya is important for Europe and the US,” Bashagha said.