Tunis: For the UN’s Libya envoy, US-Russia tensions top a list of “complications” in efforts to heal international divisions on the North African state’s conflict, he told AFP in an interview.
Gassan Salame said “the road is (still) full of obstacles and complications” towards convening inter-Libyan peace talks that could be held in Geneva “probably in the first half of January”.
“We’ve recently had many complications, primarily of course concerning this Russian-American tension on the possible presence (in Libya) of Russian security firms,” said Salame.
Washington has repeatedly voiced concern over alleged Russian meddling in the conflict that is being exploited by several outside powers for a proxy war.
Russia is suspected of providing military support to eastern Libya’s Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces on April 4 launched a now stalled assault on the Tripoli base of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
In early November, Russia denied media reports of Russian mercenaries backing up Haftar’s forces.
The GNA, for its part, is propped up by Turkish military aid.
Under an action plan adopted by the UN Security Council in July, Salame has been working to organise an international conference in Berlin aimed primarily at ending foreign interference in Libya, which is in theory under a UN arms embargo.
“Arms are coming in from everywhere,” the United Nations envoy told AFP at his office in Tunis.
Four preparatory meetings have been held in the German capital and a final session is scheduled to take place on December 10, he said.
Apart from the Security Council’s five permanent member states, Germany, Italy, Egypt, the UAE and Turkey have also taken part.
“If all goes well, we’ll be able to set a date... for the political meeting that should take place most probably in the first days of 2020,” in which other countries could also join, said the UN envoy, to be followed by the inter-Libyan talks.
‘Novelty’ of US interest in Libya
On the Russian mercenaries, Salame said he was not in a position to confirm their presence in Libya that appeared to have motivated “a growing American interest” in the North African country.
Previously, “the Americans had practically limited their interest to two fundamental questions: the fight against terrorism and the normal flow of oil production,” he said.
Senior US officials met with Haftar earlier this month to discuss steps towards ending his offensive on Tripoli, and accused Russia of exploiting the conflict, the State Department said.
Despite apparent initial support for Haftar on the part of US President Donald Trump, Washington has called for a halt to the offensive in the wake of a visit to the US capital by a GNA delegation earlier this year.
Salame termed the renewed US interest in Libya “a novelty” and said the United Nations, “like the Libyans, are waiting for clarity on what the Americans think they can do” in the country.
The UN envoy also said a military deal signed by Turkey and the GNA following a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul had added to international tensions.
Their agreements on security and military cooperation, as well as maritime jurisdictions, have raised heckles among Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, he pointed out.
On the humanitarian front, Salame said that the deadlocked fighting south of Tripoli between pro-GNA and Haftar’s forces had caused “a lot of destruction” on top of a civilian casualty toll of at least 200 killed and 300 injured.
Among the combatants, the United Nations estimates more than 2,000 dead or wounded, he said.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which Salame heads, has registered more than 146,000 displaced by the fighting launched almost eight months ago.
The envoy said the actual figure for the displaced was much higher, with more than 100,000 believed to have taken refuge across the border in Tunisia.