ROME (AP) – Italy, Germany and the United States pushed Monday for a ceasefire and escalation in tensions in Libya following a warning from Egypt that it would intervene militarily if Turkey-backed forces attack the strategic city of Sirte would attack.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, said after talks in Rome that a ceasefire is urgent given the Egyptian threat. Di Maio also called for the swift appointment of a new UN envoy and the vigorous enforcement of a UN arms embargo against Libya.
“If we stop or significantly reduce the arrival of weapons, we can reduce the aggressiveness of the Libyan parties in this conflict,” said Di Maio.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi warned last weekend that any attack on Sirte or the Jufra domestic air base by Turkey-backed troops loyal to the UN-backed but weak government in Tripoli amounts to exceeding a “red line”.
He said Egypt could intervene militarily to protect its western border with the oil-rich country and bring stability – including creating conditions for a ceasefire.
The Tripoli-based government said it considered el-Sissi’s comments as a “declaration of war”, while the authorities in the east welcomed his support.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters on Monday that the world body’s search for a new UN envoy for Libya was grounded when the Trump administration blocked two of the secretary-general’s appointments, saying it wants a senior official in charge of only a ceasefire and another leading the UN mission.
Acting UN envoy Stephanie Williams continues to commute between the belligerents and their foreign lenders, he said, urging de-escalation and resumption of the UN-facilitated political process.
“The last thing Libya needs right now is more fighting, more military mobilization, more arms transfer, more presence of foreign fighters or mercenaries in its territory,” said Dujarric, responding to Egypt’s threats to intervene militarily.
The U.S. military, General Stephen Townsend, head of the African Command, and U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland, meanwhile, met Tripoli Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj in the Libyan capital on Monday, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy.
It said the two US officials emphasized the “need for a military break and return to negotiations.”
“All sides must return to the UN-led ceasefire and political negotiations because this tragic conflict is robbing all Libyans of their future,” Townsend said.
Norland called on foreign countries to support Libya’s rivals to stop “stirring up the conflict, respecting the UN arms embargo, and upholding the commitments made at the Berlin Summit earlier this year.”
The German foreign minister said the Egyptian threat indicated that further escalation was possible, making it “all the more urgent to agree a ceasefire now.”
For his part, Di Maio said Italy was willing to contribute even more to a sea and air mission to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya, saying it will be crucial even after a ceasefire is signed.
“We will be talking to the Libyan parties in the coming days to try to bring forward the signing of a ceasefire as soon as possible,” said Di Maio. “Even if there is a ceasefire, I think the mission (arms embargo) will continue to be important, because especially with a ceasefire we must limit the arrival of weapons in Libya.”
Italy is particularly concerned that a possible escalation of the conflict will cause more migrants on smugglers’ boats to the Italian coast. The corona virus emergency in hard-hit Italy has held back their arrival, but authorities fear numbers will increase again with the relaxation of the health emergency and the return to the Mediterranean of humanitarian rescue ships.
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since been split between rival administrations in the east and west, each supported by armed groups and foreign governments.
Eastern forces under Khalifa Hifter launched an offensive to attempt to capture Tripoli in April last year. Hifter’s forces are supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli allied militias are aided by Qatar, Italy and Turkey.
Dujarric said that Hifter’s failed campaign to conquer Tripoli caused a humanitarian crisis: 1 million people needed help and nearly half a million were displaced.
Tripoli-based troops with Turkish support gained the upper hand in the war earlier this month after recapturing the capital’s airport, all main entrances and exits to the city and a series of important cities near Tripoli. They threatened to retake Sirte, giving them control over oil fields and facilities in the south that Hifter seized earlier this year as part of his offensive on Tripoli.
With the recent withdrawal of Hifter’s forces from their last western stronghold of Tarhuna and the discovery of several mass graves in the area, a transparent investigation of possible war crimes has been called for. International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said on Monday that her office received credible reports of 11 mass graves of men, women and children.
In Geneva, the UN-supported Human Rights Council unanimously agreed on Monday to call for the immediate establishment and deployment of a one-year fact-finding mission to document violations of rights and rights in Libya since 2016.
The body of 47 member states has asked UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to appoint experts for the mission and called on the Libyan authorities to grant the country “unimpeded access” and to speak justice with whomever they want.
Eric Goldstein, acting director of the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, welcomed the move as “a wake-up call to warlords and armed groups that they could be held responsible for serious crimes committed by their rank and status “.
Associated Press writers Samy Magdy in Cairo, David Rising in Berlin, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
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