ROME – Libya’s U.N.-backed prime minister on Saturday conditioned his government's participation in a proposed ceasefire to rival forces withdrawing from the outskirts of Tripoli, suggesting no immediate end to the country's civil war.
Prime Minister Fayez Serraj defended his “bellicose activities” to protect the Libyan capital, the seat of his government, on the eve of the start date for the truce proposed by Turkey and Russia. Serraj spoke while in Rome for a meeting with Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte.
The meeting was the latest diplomatic effort to end the offensive launched by Serraj’s rival in eastern Libya, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, and return the two sides to a U.N.-supported political process.
The presidents of Turkey and Russia this week called for a ceasefire between the warring eastern and western Libyan forces starting Sunday. While Serraj’s government welcomed the call, a spokesman for Hifter’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, Ahmed al-Mosmari, said the group’s battalions would still try to take control of Tripoli from what he called “terrorist groups.”
“We welcome with pleasure the Russian and Turkish initiative that points to a cease-fire, as we are always open to and welcome any initiative that goes in this direction,” Serraj said in comments after meeting with Conte. “As long as it is conditioned on the complete withdrawal of the adversary, the attackers. But in our long experience, we do not trust any offers from the attackers because deception is the way they operate.”
Hifter’s eastern-based forces launched a fresh offensive in Tripoli in April, sparking a flurry of diplomatic efforts to try to contain the crisis in the North African nation.
The east-based government, backed by Hifter's forces, is supported by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia. The western, Tripoli-based government receives aid from Turkey, Qatar and Italy.
The fighting has threatened to plunge Libya into violent chaos rivaling the 2011 conflict that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Both Russia and Turkey have been accused of exacerbating the conflict in Libya by giving military aid to its warring parties.
Serraj appeared to defend Turkey's decision to deploy troops to bolster his forces, saying his government was “forced to take part in these bellicose activities which we consider a right to defend the capital."
Conte is eager to show Italy, Libya’s former colonial ruler, as a key facilitator in Libya’s political process, and met Wednesday in Rome with Hifter as part of that effort.
Serraj snubbed Conte on Wednesday, but on Saturday thanked Italy for its efforts. The two sides agreed to restart a mixed commission to work out compensation to Libya stemming from Italy's Libyan occupation.
Conte called for an end to “foreign interference” in Libya and for the European Union to take an even greater role in returning the parties to political talks, in a clear reference to Russia and Turkey.
“We are convinced this (EU) intervention offers the maximum guarantee to not place the future of the Libyan people at the will of lone actors,” Conte said.
Later, he called French President Emmanuel Macron, whose government is backing Hifter's forces. A statement from Conte's office said the two “repeated the importance of a European-level coordination that favors the pacification and stabilization in Libya."
AP producer Maggie Hyde contributed from Cairo.