Libya’s rival sides have reached an initial agreement on the withdrawal of foreign fighters and mercenaries from the North African nation in a move seen as a key step towards unifying the warring sides in the violence-racked country.
The United Nations mission mediating between the rivals said a 10-member joint military commission, with five representatives from each side, (JMC 5+5,) inked a “gradual and balanced” withdrawal deal at the end of three-day, UN-facilitated talks in Geneva on Friday.
It added that the plan, coupled with an implementation mechanism, would be “the cornerstone for the gradual, balanced, and sequenced process of withdrawal” of the mercenaries and foreign forces.
Jan Kubis, the UN special envoy for Libya, welcomed the move as “another breakthrough achievement”.
Friday’s deal “creates a positive momentum that should be built upon to move forward towards a stable and democratic stage, including through the holding of free, credible and transparent national elections on 24 December, with results accepted by all,” Kubis said.
The UN has welcomed the signing of an action plan, which is aligned with a ceasefire deal, respective United Nations Security Council resolutions, and the outcomes of the Berlin Conference last year.
Mercenaries and civil war
The issue of the mercenaries and foreign fighters has long been an obstacle ahead of Libya’s landmark general elections.
Last December, then UN acting envoy for Libya, Stephanie Williams, estimated there have been at least 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya, including Russians, Syrians, Sudanese and Chadians, over the past few years.
Libya has been engulfed in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The oil-rich country was later, for years, split between rival governments in the capital, Tripoli, and the eastern part of the country. Each side is backed by different foreign powers and militia groups.
Libya’s split came into the forefront in 2019, when renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, allied with the east-based administration, launched an offensive to take Tripoli from armed militias loosely allied with the UN-recognised but weak government in the country’s capital.
Haftar was backed by Egypt, the UAE, Russia and France. But his 14-month campaign and march on Tripoli ultimately failed in June 2020, after Turkey sent troops to help the UN-recognised administration, which also had the backing of Qatar and Italy.
After the fighting largely stalemated, subsequent UN-sponsored peace talks brought about a ceasefire last October and installed an interim government that is expected to lead the country into the December elections.
The ceasefire deal also included the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries within three months – something that was never implemented.
After inking the deal in Geneva, the rival sides said they would go back and communicate with their base and concerned international parties “to support the implementation of this plan and the respect of Libya’s sovereignty”.
The deal also called for the deployment of UN observers to monitor the ceasefire before the implementation of the withdrawal plan.