UN: Libya's warring sides have agreed to restart peace talks

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FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2020, file, photo, Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter joins a meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Athens. The U.S. military Tuesday, May 26, 2020 accused Russia of deploying fighter planes to conflict-stricken Libya to support Russian mercenaries aiding east-based forces in their offensive on the capital, Tripoli. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)

CAIRO – The United Nations said Libya's warring factions have agreed to resume cease-fire talks, following days of heavy fighting and eastern-based forces retaking a key town from their rivals after a string of setbacks.

The U.N. Mission in Libya said it hoped the new round of talks would “mark the beginning of calm on the ground," especially to allow the country's war-scarred health system to cope with a coronavirus outbreak.

Delegates from the rivals, Khalifa Hifter’s east-based forces and militias allied with the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli, will conduct the talks through video calls because of the pandemic, the U.N. Mission said in the announcement late Monday. It didn't say when the talks would resume or give further details.

As the foreign-fueled proxy war teeters on the edge of a major escalation, the statement signaled that both sides, and their foreign backers, may prefer to pull back from the brink.

Spokespeople for the military factions did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and the fate of the political process remains unclear after previous agreements collapsed.

On Sunday, Hifter’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces recaptured the strategic town of al-Asabaa, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of the capital, after launching airstrikes on militias in the area, according to Ahmed al-Mosmari, a spokesman for the group. Their troops were chasing Tripoli-allied forces to their stronghold in the nearby town of Gharyan, he added.

A statement for the Tripoli-allied forces did not acknowledge the defeat, with spokesman Mohamed Gnono saying only that they were targeting LAAF forces on the town’s borders. But two Tripoli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters, admitted they lost the town after heavy shelling and airstrikes by eastern forces.

Control of the town gives the LAAF better access to Tarhuna, their main western stronghold and supply line southeast of the capital.