US-Russia tensions ‘complicate’ UN peace efforts for Libya

Ghassan Salame, the Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), speaks during an interview in Tunis on November 29, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 30 November 2019

US-Russia tensions ‘complicate’ UN peace efforts for Libya

  • Washington has repeatedly voiced concern over alleged Russian meddling in the conflict

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.

Ghassan Salame said: “The road is (still) full of obstacles and complications” toward 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 eastern commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces on April 4 launched a now stalled assault on the Tripoli base of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

In early November, Russia denied media reports of Russian mercenaries backing up Haftar’s forces, who already have the support of the UAE, Jordan and Egypt.

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 organize 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 UN 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 Dec. 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.

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 toward 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 UN, “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 UN estimates more than 2,000 dead or wounded, he said.

The UN 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.


Lebanese burn ruling parties’ offices after night of clashes

Updated 41 min 13 sec ago

Lebanese burn ruling parties’ offices after night of clashes

  • Attacks came just hours after Beirut was rocked by the most violent government crackdown on protesters

BEIRUT: Attackers in northern Lebanon set fire to the offices of two major political parties on Sunday, the state-run National News Agency said.
The assaults came just hours after the capital Beirut was rocked by the most violent government crackdown on protesters since nationwide demonstrations began two months ago. Lebanese security forces fired rubber bullets, tear gas and used water cannons throughout the night to disperse anti-government protesters from the city center — the epicenter of the protest movement in Beirut — and around parliament.
The overnight confrontations in Beirut left more than 130 people injured, according to the Red Cross and the Lebanese Civil Defense.
In the northern Akkar district on Sunday, attackers broke the windows and torched the local office for resigned Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s political party in the town of Kharibet Al-Jindi.
In a separate attack in Akkar district, assailants stormed the local office of the largest party in parliament, affiliated with President Michel Aoun and headed by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Their party said the contents of the office in Jedidat Al-Juma town had also been smashed and burned.
Lebanon is facing one of its worst economic crises in decades, and the protesters accuse the ruling political class in place for three decades of mismanagement and corruption.
The violence comes a day before the president is due to hold talks with different parliamentary blocs to name a new prime minister on Monday.
Interior Minister Raya Al-Hassan on Sunday ordered an investigation into the clashes which she said injured both protesters and security forces. She said she watched the confrontations “with concern, sadness and shock.”
Al-Hassan blamed “infiltrators” for instigating the friction and called on the demonstrators to be wary of those who want to exploit their protests for political reasons. She didn’t elaborate.
Nationwide protests began on Oct. 17, and the government headed by Hariri resigned two weeks later.
Political parties have since been bickering over the shape and form of the new Cabinet. Protesters want a technocratic government, not affiliated with established political parties.
After weeks of back and forth, Hariri has emerged as the likely candidate for the job.