France hosts Libya conference ahead of polls in war-torn nation

Libya’s eastern-based forces agree to repatriate 300 foreign mercenaries ahead of December elections amid tension between rivals.

A Libyan flag flutters in the air.
In early October, Libya's parliament pushed back legislative elections until January, though world powers and the UN want them held with a parliamentary vote in December [File: Costas Baltas/Reuters]

French President Emmanuel Macron hosts leaders and diplomats in Paris for an international conference on Friday aimed at ensuring Libya sticks to a plan to hold elections in December and turn a new page in its history.

The hydrocarbon-rich North African country has been mired in civil war since the overthrow of its longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in a 2011 uprising, with the bloodshed drawing in competing Libya factions and armed groups, as well as regional powers.

The presidential vote on December 24, and legislative elections, are the core parts of a United Nations plan to help restore stability, but the calendar has been under pressure as tensions resume between rival camps.

There are also fears over whether the various factions will recognise the results of the polls, which could mark a turning point for a country that has become a major departure point for migrants and refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean for Europe.

Almost 30 countries and organisations will be in Paris, including Libya’s neighbours, and countries that have been split over the conflict.

Key players attending the meeting will include US Vice President Kamala Harris, who is on a visit to France aimed at improving ties, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, one of Paris’s closest allies in the Middle East.

“The elections are within grasp. There is a strong momentum in Libya for them to go ahead. The stability of the country is at stake,” said a French presidential official, who asked not to be identified by name.

Earlier this week, Libya opened registration for election candidates, with speculation mounting over possible presidential bids by renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar and Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, both deeply divisive figures.

The scheduling also remains unclear – presidential and parliamentary elections were both slated for December 24.

In early October, parliament deferred the legislative elections until January, though world powers and the UN want them held simultaneously.

A French presidential official told reporters at a briefing before the meeting that some actors were ready to seize on any ambiguities to advance their own interests. “They are obviously waiting to ambush and try to derail the electoral process,” the official said.

A final communique may warn potential spoilers that they could face sanctions, diplomats said.

Foreign forces out?

Elysee officials have been at pains to present the conference as an international effort, co-presided by France, Germany, Italy, the UN and Libya itself.

But it represents the latest foray into high-stakes international diplomacy by Macron, who is expected to seek re-election in April and whose country also takes on the European Union presidency in January.

In May 2018, a year into his term in office, Macron also convened the key Libyan leaders for a conference in Paris where they agreed to hold elections that year.

Since then, France has faced accusations that it favoured Haftar, a former CIA asset, in the conflict against the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) unsuccessfully launched a military campaign last year to capture western Libya, including Tripoli – the base of the GNA.

Turkey was the main military backer of the GNA, while the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt back Haftar.

The rival sides agreed to a ceasefire last October following the UN mediation.

Despite French weapons being found on a base used by pro-Haftar forces in 2019, Paris has rejected the claims.

Macron wants the conference to endorse a plan for the departure of all foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya, the French presidential official said.

Paris initially aimed to have the Turkish and Russian heads of state attending, but both Ankara and Moscow have sent lower-level representatives, perhaps demonstrating the complications with removing foreign forces.

Mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group are entrenched alongside the LNA, which was supported in the war by Moscow, along with the UAE and Egypt.

Diplomats have said Turkey was unlikely to act before there were departures from the east.

Libya’s eastern-based forces said on Thursday it had agreed to repatriate 300 foreign mercenaries from their area of control after a request from France.

A “first group of 300 mercenaries and foreign fighters” are to be repatriated “at the request of France”, representatives of Haftar’s forces said.

The UN estimates that 20,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters are deployed in Libya, including from Russia’s Wagner group, Chad, Sudan and Syria.

A UN report released in October revealed that all sides, “including third states, foreign fighters and mercenaries, have violated international humanitarian law … and some have also committed war crimes”.

Prominent absentee

Libya will be represented by Mohamed al-Menfi, the head of the transitional presidential council that carries out head-of-state functions ahead of the elections, as well as Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah.

Local media have reported that Dbeibah will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush despite her suspension by the presidential council in a move that highlighted tensions between the prime minister and the presidential council.

One prominent absentee is Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was invited by Paris but is staying away after taking umbrage at comments by Macron criticising his country’s “political-military system”.

The dispute prompted a rare expression of contrition from the Elysee, which said it “regretted” the misunderstandings caused by the remarks.

Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra welcomed the response as “respectful” and confirmed that Algerian officials would attend the conference although not Tebboune himself.

Source: News Agencies