The head of Libya’s internationally recognized government and a rival military strongman have met and agreed to hold elections aimed at ending years of instability, the United Nations said Thursday.
Unity government leader Fayez al-Sarraj met Khalifa Haftar on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, where they agreed “on the need to end the transitional phase through general elections and on ways to preserve the stability of #Libya and unify its institutions,” the UN’s Libya mission UNSMIL tweeted.
The North African country has been torn between rival administrations and a myriad of militias since the NATO-backed overthrow and killing of dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Chief among them are Sarraj’s Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli, and a rival administration based in the east and backed by Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army.
The leaders had agreed to a Paris-brokered deal in May 2018 to hold a nationwide election by the end of the year.
But instability, territorial disputes and divisions in the oil-rich country delayed those plans.
Talks in Italy in November laid bare deep divisions between the key power brokers, with some delegates refusing to sit side by side and Haftar snubbing the main conference to organize separate talks with international leaders.
Reacting to Thursday’s announcement, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he was following developments closely.
“We worked so hard for this agreement,” he said, “but the situation in Libya is such that we must wait until all actors have agreed”.
United Nations envoy Ghassan Salame told the UN Security Council last month that he was planning to organize a national conference inside Libya within weeks to pave the way for elections.
But analysts have warned that the UN’s efforts could be threatened after Haftar’s forces launched an offensive into the south in mid-January, aimed at rooting out “terrorists” and foreign fighters.
Powerful Tripoli-based militias have condemned Haftar’s operation as a power grab, although the GNA itself has not been as explicit in its opposition.
People traffickers have taken advantage of the chaos to turn Libya into a major conduit for migrants seeking a better life in Europe.
The LNA already controls vital oil installations in Libya’s east, but its power struggle with the GNA has left the country’s vast desert south a lawless no-man’s land.
The rugged territory bordering Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan has become a haven for jihadists and armed groups, including Chadian rebels.
Libya’s instability has also made it vulnerable to jihadist groups, which have carried out numerous attacks in recent years, including more than 20 in 2018 against institutions linked to the GNA and Haftar’s forces.
But UN efforts to reach a political settlement and restore stability have so far failed.
The African Union last month called for a global conference in July to try to resolve the conflict in Libya.
It asked the AU Commission “to take, jointly with the United Nations and the Libyan government, all the necessary measures for the organization of presidential and legislative elections in October 2019.”
The AU’s current chief, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has underscored the need for “African solutions to African problems.”