EU ministers pile pressure on Haftar to halt Libya offensive

Vehicles and militants, reportedly from the Misrata militia, gather to join Tripoli forces, in Tripoli, Libya, 6 April 2019. [Stringer/EPA/EFE]

EU foreign ministers on Saturday upped pressure on Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar to halt his offensive on Tripoli, urging the strongman to commit to a political solution. The issue is expected to be discussed again at the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday (8 April).

Khalifa’s dramatic bid to take Tripoli came as a meeting of Group of Seven (G7) foreign ministers was being held in northern France with the club issuing a statement on Friday urging an immediate halt to “all military activity and movements toward Tripoli”.

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France this week kicks off meetings under its presidency of the club for the world’s seven most developed nations as questions mount over the relevance of the group at a time of tension between Europe and the United States.

Several European ministers on Saturday warned Haftar not to countenance any further military action, saying that this could destroy a UN-backed peace process.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the Tripoli operations as “untimely initiatives” that could further destabilise Libya.

“There is a fundamental principle in Libya. There will be no military victory. The solution can only be a political solution,” he added.

He said that France and Italy, the two European powers with the most influence in north Africa, were “on the same wavelength”.

“It is important that all of the international community takes the same line,” Le Drian added.

Experts say Haftar had had backing from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as France, which is seen as his closest ally in Europe.

The UAE, however, has joined Western countries in expressing its deep concern about the fighting.

‘Overcome past differences’

Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi said that the G7 statement, which was also echoed by the UN Security Council, showed that the international community was not prepared to tolerate military action.

“We think the military initiatives are not the best ones to grant peaceful developments in Libya and a constructive path forward for stabilising the country,” he said.

Asked if sanctions could be imposed against Haftar were he to fail to comply with the demands of the international community, he replied: “We have stated quite clearly what our position is and we very much hope that he (Haftar) will take it into consideration. If this will not happen, then we can see what can next be done.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said there should be pressure on all the actors in Libya “especially general Haftar”.

He said it was important to “make sure that there is no further military escalation”.

“No justification for LNA move on Tripoli,” UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt tweeted, adding he was watching the situation very closely and would discuss the “next steps” with the European Union on Monday.

The growing international pressure on Haftar came as fresh fighting flared Saturday south of Tripoli between the pro-government forces and Haftar’s troops.

On Friday Haftar’s forces were pushed back from a key checkpoint west of the capital, less than 24 hours after seizing it during the lightning offensive towards Tripoli.

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Despite the flare-up, UN envoy Ghassan Salame insisted Saturday that talks planned to be held next week in Libya would go ahead.

Le Drian expressed particular frustration over the escalation given that Haftar and the head of the Tripoli-based government, Fayez al-Sarraj, had come to agreements earlier this year in talks in Abu Dhabi.

“They need now to overcome their past differences in the interest of the Libyan people. The Libyan people have had enough of this violence,” the French minister said.

UN fails to reach truce

Eastern Libyan forces carried out air strikes on the southern part of Tripoli on Sunday and made progress toward the city center, residents said, escalating an operation to take the capital as the United Nations failed to achieve a truce.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) force of Haftar reached the southern outskirts of the capital on Friday and says it took the former international airport, though the Tripoli military officials deny this.

At least one warplane carried out an air strike in the area, a resident said.

“The air force took part for the first time in the military operations,” said LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari. “It conducted a very successful operation to secure the airport road (to city center),” he added.

The LNA moved up north from on the road from former airport in the district of Khalat Furgan, coming some 11 km from the city center, a resident said, adding he could see the troops as forces loyal to the Tripoli government withdrew.

The UN mission to Libya (UNSMIL) called on Sunday for a truce for two hours in southern Tripoli to evacuate civilians and wounded, it said in a statement without giving details.

But the true was not observed by evening, one UN official said.

In another sign of the situation worsening on the ground, a contingent of US forces supporting the US Africa Command evacuated Libya for security reasons, a US statement said. It gave no details.

Forces allied to the Tripoli government meanwhile announced their own operation called “Volcano of Anger” to defend the capital, a spokesman said, without giving details.

The offensive has taken the United Nations by surprise, undermining plans to find agreement on a road map for elections to resolve the protracted instability in Libya.

Lawless since Gaddafi was toppled by rebels backed by NATO air strikes, Libya has become the transit point hundreds of thousands of migrants trekking across the Sahara with the objective of reaching Europe across the Mediterranean Sea.

In the past, Haftar has struck deals with armed factions outside Tripoli to advance his forces. But gaining control of Tripoli – the ultimate prize for Haftar’s eastern parallel government – would be far more complicated.

Armed groups allied to the Tripoli government have moved more machinegun-mounted pickup trucks to defend Tripoli from Misrata down the coast. Misrata is known for a spirit of resisting “old regime” figures, developed during 2011 when pro-Gaddafi forces besieged it for three months.

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