Libya calls for cease-fire following a failed rebel assault on Tripoli

Samer Khalil Al-Atrush August 21, 2020

CAIRO (Bloomberg) - Libya’s Turkish-backed government announced a cease-fire, months after inflicting a heavy defeat on Russian-supported military commander Khalifa Haftar, raising hopes for an end to a spiraling proxy war.

The announcement on Friday and a reciprocal call for a truce from the head of the eastern-based legislature Aguileh Saleh come on the heels of United Nations-mediated talks in Geneva this week, and a phone call between the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers. Their countries have emerged as key power brokers in the North African nation that has the continent’s biggest oil reserves.

Haftar, aided by Russian mercenaries, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, had led a failed offensive to capture the capital, Tripoli, from the internationally recognized government. A Turkish military intervention helped rout his self-styled Libyan National Army earlier this year, and Haftar’s forces fell back to Sirte, the gateway to key oil assets.

The truce announcement may bolster efforts to restart oil fields and terminals that have been closed under orders from Haftar since January, costing the country almost $8 billion in lost revenues. The National Oil Corp. welcomed calls from both sides to resume crude output, but said in a statement armed groups needed to leave oil installations before it could lift force majeure.

‘Serious’ Dialogue

The powerful interior minister in the Tripoli-based government, Fathi Bashagha, said in an interview that the cease-fire wouldn’t have happened without support from the U.S., Turkey, Egypt and Qatar.

“It must be followed by a serious political dialogue that leads to a settlement,” he said. “Those steps must be taken quickly.”

In some of the first international reaction, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi welcomed the announcement as did the U.S. German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr said that from first reports it “could be an important step.” The UN, which also helped mediate the cease-fire, acclaimed the move.

In his statement, Saleh, who has an uneasy alliance with Haftar, backed a proposal to resume oil production and freeze revenues in a foreign account held by the central bank while an arrangement is made to fairly distribute the money.

But only Haftar can make that decision and he’s yet to comment on Friday’s developments. Earlier this week, a Haftar-aligned force said it would permit the export of stored fuel to make space for badly needed gas amid power shortages.

Libya has been fractured and often convulsed by conflict since the 2011 NATO-backed ouster and killing of Moammar Qaddafi. That’s left the nation that sits atop Africa’s largest crude reserves in economic shambles.

Haftar’s offer of an Egyptian-sponsored truce in June was spurned by the Tripoli government, which insisted it would take Sirte before halting its offensive. A subsequent military build both in Sirte and near the Juffra airbase also controlled by Haftar, compelled both sides to informally stop fighting although the public threats continued, officials linked to the rival sides told Bloomberg.

Egypt, which neighbors Libya, had threatened to intervene militarily if government forces attacked Sirte, sparking fears of a military confrontation between Turkey on the one hand, and Egypt, Russia and the UAE on the other.

Russian Mercenaries

Western and Arab diplomats say Haftar’s forces are backed by hundreds of Russian mercenaries and an S-300 air-defense system, and supported by a fleet of advanced Russian-supplied jet fighters.

In its cease-fire announcement, the Tripoli-based government signaled the difficulties ahead. Sirte, it said, should be turned into a demilitarized zone, something Haftar has rejected. His ally Saleh, however, said the city should be secured by a joint police force from across the country.

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