Libya’s U.N.-supported government Friday announced a cease-fire across the oil-rich country and called for demilitarizing the strategic city of Sirte in an initiative supported by the rival parliament in the east.
The development could mark a breakthrough following international pressure amid rising fear of a new escalation in the chaotic proxy war as rival sides mobilize for a battle over Sirte. The gateway to Libya’s major oil export terminals has been under the control of forces loyal to military commander Khalifa Hifter since January.
Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
The chaos has worsened in recent months as foreign backers increasingly intervene, despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year. Thousands of mercenaries including Russian, Syrians and Sudanese are fighting on both sides of the conflict.
Hifter, who is allied to the parliament in eastern Libya, is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Forces loyal to the Government of National Accord based in the capital Tripoli have backing from Turkey, a bitter rival of Egypt and the UAE in a broader regional struggle, as well as from the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar.
Hifter’s forces launched an offensive in April 2019 trying to capture Tripoli. But his campaign collapsed in June when the Tripoli-allied militias, with heavy Turkish support, gained the upper hand, driving his forces from the outskirts of the city and other western towns.
Fighting has died down in recent weeks, but both sides were preparing for a possible battle over Sirte. Emboldened by Turkey’s support, Tripoli-allied forces vowed to retake Sirte and the Jurfa area, which includes a vital inland military base, from Hifter’s forces, prompting Egypt to threaten to send troops to Libya.
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Previous efforts to secure lasting cease-fires have stalled. But this time could prove different with heavier diplomatic efforts, including by the United States, aiming to avert the of direct military confrontation between Egypt and Turkey, both American allies, over Sirte.
Fayez Sarraj, head of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, said an effective cease-fire requires “the demilitarization of Sirte and Jurfa areas, and that police forces from the two sides agree on security arrangements there.”
Aguila Saleh, speaker of the rival eastern-based House of Representatives, supported Sarraj’s proposal of demilitarization of Sirte — but he did not mention Jurfa. The United States floated the idea of demilitarization earlier this month.