Libyan Fighters Begin Tenuous Cease-Fire in Glimmer of Peace

(Bloomberg) -- Libya’s warring factions have embarked on a tenuous cease-fire in a nine-month war that has drawn in Russia and Turkey on opposite sides.

While officials from the Tripoli-based government and forces loyal to eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar accused each other of violating the peace on Sunday, violence abated after the accord took effect at midnight. Both sides said they will abide by the cease-fire.

The dramatic move from Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which had made a series of gains against the internationally recognized government in recent weeks, followed a call for a cease-fire by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Some Russian mercenaries backing Haftar’s forces have pulled back from the front lines since the end of last year, according to four people with knowledge of the matter. It’s not clear whether their removal is a drawdown or part of a rotation, two of the people said. A front-line fighter said the mercenary forces’ presence had visibly decreased.

Putin has taken a dominant role in the crisis in Libya in recent months, backing Haftar’s forces with mercenaries and more recently leading the diplomatic push even as a possible Turkish military intervention to defend Tripoli against Haftar’s forces loomed. Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj discussed military cooperation with Erdogan in Istanbul on Sunday, Ahaber TV reported.

The war, which has killed more than 2,000 people and displaced tens of thousands, threatens to further divide an oil-producing country wracked by violence since a NATO-backed revolt in 2011 toppled dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. As a gateway for refugees into Europe, Libya has been a vital issue for governments on the continent shaken by rising anti-immigrant sentiment.

Turkish-Backed Rebels

Haftar has resisted ending his offensive, arguing that he could take the capital and unseat the government. International pressure had mounted as the war he launched in April drew in outside powers, including Turkish-backed Syrian rebels deployed to defend Tripoli. The United Nations mission welcomed the truce and called on both sides to adhere to it.

Hours before the cease-fire, Putin talked with the leaders of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which also back Haftar, and reached out to Qatar, which supports the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. He also spoke with Erdogan by phone, reaffirming their goal of a “political resolution” in Libya.

The U.S., which had held Libya at arm’s length until Russian mercenaries were deployed in September, increased pressure on both sides to end the fighting in meetings with Haftar and a GNA leader in Rome last week.

Next, Germany plans to host a Libyan summit this month to enforce a UN arms embargo flouted by the backers of the rival factions. Turkey and the U.A.E. have deployed armed drones to Libya and supplied local allies with armored vehicles and weapons.

Berlin Meeting

“We have agreed that we will soon be able to issue invitations to a conference in Berlin,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on Saturday after meeting Putin in Moscow.

It isn’t clear how the truce will be implemented or monitored. Haftar’s forces control eastern Libya and the south, where most of the oil fields are. The front lines in Tripoli’s suburbs are a patchwork of rival forces, some of them nominally under a central command.

A group allied with the GNA said one of their fighters was killed south of Tripoli on the first day of the cease-fire but they will continue to abide by the truce, according to a Facebook post from Burkan Al-Ghadab, the GNA’s military operations.

A meeting between Italy, Turkey and Russia is expected to take place soon in preparation for the Berlin conference, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said in an interview with daily La Stampa on Sunday. Italy, which has longstanding political and economic ties to Libya, made an attempt to mediate last week.

The grievances that led to the war also remain. Haftar launched the offensive claiming Tripoli was in the grip of terrorists, although the government there is a Western ally in fighting Islamic State and other jihadists. But the war has more to do with control over the country’s financial institutions in the capital, including the central bank, which Haftar says hasn’t distributed oil revenue fairly.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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