UN special envoy for Libya warns: ‘We are in a race against time’

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Foreign mercenaries being sent to Libya to join war. (Reuters)
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Ghassan Salamé
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Updated 12 February 2020

UN special envoy for Libya warns: ‘We are in a race against time’

  • Ghassan Salame tells Arab News: Libyan crisis is becoming a threat to security in Mediterranean and Sahel region

PARIS: Special Representative for the UN Support Mission in Libya Ghassan Salamé told Arab News it would not be useful for Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar and Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj to meet without carrying out the necessary preparatory work for an agreement.

“It will not solve the problem,” he said, reiterating that several leaders — including Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte — had all tried it, but in vain.

“You need to address the big issues that allow these two to sell whatever agreement they reach to their own constituencies. If this preparatory work is not done, nothing will happen,” he said.

In an exclusive interview in Paris, Salamé — a former Lebanese minister — said that while the members of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission had agreed at their meeting in Geneva early this month to confirm the truce, to begin the process of disarming the militias, and to meet again soon, foreign interference in Libya was still high. He confirmed that Turkey had sent foreign fighters and equipment to Libya after the Berlin summit in January, adding that other countries are also sending equipment and fighters in support of Haftar.

On the fragility of the ceasefire, he said: “We still have a situation that is very blurred. They keep telling us that they respect the truce, but we have counted more than 130 violations since Jan. 12.”

Militias, he said, are on the payroll of the regular army and, according to the central bank, the army is paid on both sides of the divide — east and west — as are all civil servants.

On the current state of the deal between the two sides, he said: “We agreed on many issues; we agreed that the foreign fighters need to depart the country within three months of the ceasefire agreement. We agreed on the beginning of the process of disarming the militias; and we also agreed on the attempt to reunify the struggle against terrorist groups. There were, however, two or three sticking points we did not agree upon.”

Commenting on President Macron’s accusation that Turkey violated the Berlin commitment by sending arms and Syrian mercenaries to fight in Libya to help Al-Sarraj, Salamé said that both sides had violated the commitments undertaken at the Berlin summit.

That is why, he said, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the situation a “scandal.”

“There are commitments and there is a resolution but nobody is respecting them,” Salamé said. “We are therefore now in a race against time. We have launched these three tracks and I am happy the economic and financial tracks are going very well. At least 28 representatives from all the political groups and from various economic institutions in Libya met in Cairo on Feb. 9 and 10, and the next meeting will be in the first week of March.”

Regarding the oil terminals, which Haftar has blocked, Salamé said the UN-led economic dialogue in Cairo had explored a mechanism for the fair distribution of oil revenues, since Haftar believes that they are not currently equally distributed.

“Oil is often weaponized,” he said. “It happened at least twice on my watch.” Oil production is now mainly being carried out offshore, he added. “As with the two oil problems that were solved, I came to the conclusion that without a strong position (being taken) by the international community, we cannot do it on our own. 

The Americans have been very much involved in the two preceding oil crises. This time I am using international pressure and I have been talking to tribal leaders in Zuwetina.

“More importantly, we put the question of redistribution of oil revenues at the top of the agenda of the economic meeting in Cairo,” he continued. “We are trying to come up with a mechanism that is satisfactory to everybody and we pushing as hard as we can.”

In response to Haftar’s complaint that oil revenues were not equally distributed, Salamé said: “This is an old issue and you have two different things here: You have the idea in the east and the south that these two provinces, even under Muammar Qaddafi, were not fairly treated by Tripoli, and that the west — where the majority of the population lives — is taking more than its fair share of the oil revenues and has been more vocal in the past few months. 

On the other hand, Haftar believes that after his deployment in the south and in the west, he is, to a large extent, in control of most of the oil, but the central bank in Tripoli is the one which decides on the oil revenues. The Libyans have to understand that the National Oil Company (NOC) is not taking a penny from the revenues — we are trying to explain that the NOC is different from the central bank: The oil revenues go to the Libyan exterior bank, which gives them directly to the central bank in Tripoli. 

Therefore, Haftar believes that the central bank in Tripoli is not treating him and his troops fairly. Thus, you have two combined requests: The old one from the south and east that they were never treated properly, and now Haftar saying his army is not treated properly. So for that you need a mechanism, and a number of Libyan experts on Monday created a special committee to come up with a solution for the fair distribution of oil revenues in the next few days.”

When asked why he thinks Turkey is interfering in Libya, Salamé said: “Iran is interfering in Arab countries in the eastern Arab world and Turkey is doing the same in the western part. Unfortunately, now the situation in the Arab world is very polarized … There is a combination of factors that have allowed some seven or eight countries to interfere directly — by allowing mercenaries to come, or by sending private military firms, or by sending equipment.”

The UN representative said he hoped that the escalating tension between Russia and Turkey in Syria’s Idlib region would not cause foreign fighters to enter Libya, adding that the two countries had agreed a truce in Berlin, which he described as “a positive development.”

His main concern, Salamé said, is that there are a number of parties who benefit from turmoil in Libya — and have no interest in helping to find a solution.

“What worries me in Libya is that there are groups, traders, financial people, arms dealers taking advantage of the situation and who are not in a hurry to find a solution,” he said. “A solution to Lebanon’s 1975 civil war was possible as early as 1983, but we took six extra years and lost 50,000 lives — just because we were (obstructed).

“I think time is now working against the Libyans. In the past few months, the level of foreign interference in their affairs has reached a point where they are losing their sovereignty little by little, day by day,” he continued. 

“I wish they would open their eyes and see that they are becoming not only a threat to themselves but a threat to security in the entire region of the Mediterranean and the Sahel.”

Coronavirus: 16 killed in Iran, 95 infected

Workers disinfect Qom’s Masumeh shrine, which is visited by a large number of people, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (AFP)
Updated 26 February 2020

Coronavirus: 16 killed in Iran, 95 infected

  • Six Saudi women recovering in Bahrain as Kingdom warns against travel to Italy and Japan

DUBAI: Two more people infected with the new coronavirus have died, taking the toll in Iran to 16, a Health Ministry official told state TV on Tuesday.

Iran has the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China, where the virus emerged late last year.
“Among those who had been suspected of the virus, 35 have been confirmed and two died of the coronavirus infection,” said Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour. He said 95 people had been infected across Iran.
The Health Ministry urged Iranians to stay at home.
Iran said on Monday 900 cases were suspected, dismissing claims by a lawmaker from Qom who said 50 people had died in the city, the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak.
Iran, which confirmed its first two deaths last week in Qom, has yet to say how many people it has quarantined, but the semi-official Mehr news agency said 320 people had been hospitalized.
Iraj Harirchi, Iran’s deputy health minister, has tested positive for the coronavirus and is now under quarantine.
Six Arab countries have reported their first cases of coronavirus, with those infected all having links to Iran. Kuwait said the number of infected people there had risen to eight.
Bahrain’s Health Ministry said 15 more people, including six Saudi women, had tested positive for the virus after returning from Iran via Dubai and Sharjah. The new cases were carried by Bahraini and Saudi nationals who arrived at Bahrain International Airport from Iran via Dubai or Sharjah.
The Saudi Ministry of Health said that it was coordinating with Bahraini health officials for the treatment of the Saudi women who had visited Iran. They will remain in Bahrain until they are fully recovered. The Kingdom has advised citizens and residents to avoid traveling to Italy and Japan.
Iranian authorities have ordered the nationwide cancellation of concerts and soccer matches and the closure of schools and universities in many provinces.
The head of Qom’s Medical Science University, Mohammad Reza Ghadir, expressed concern over “the spread of those people infected by the virus across the city,” adding the Health Ministry had banned releasing figures linked to the coronavirus.
Many Iranians took to social media to accuse authorities of concealing the facts.
Rouhani called for calm, saying the outbreak was no worse than other epidemics that Iran has weathered.
The sight of Iranians wearing masks and gloves is now common in much of the country.
Sales of masks, disinfectant gels and disposable gloves have soared in Tehran and other cities, with officials vowing to prevent hoarding and shortages by boosting production.
Iran has shut schools, universities and cultural centers until the end of the week in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The UAE has banned all flights to and from Iran. The UAE, home to long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad, remains a key international transit route for Iran’s 80 million people.
Emirates, the government-owned carrier based in Dubai, flies daily to Tehran. Its low-cost sister airline, FlyDubai, flies to multiple Iranian cities, as does the Sharjah-based low-cost carrier Air Arabia.
The announcement came after Bahrain said it would suspend all flights from Dubai and Sharjah.
Kuwait raised the number of its infected cases to eight, after earlier raising the number to five. It said the three latest cases involved Kuwaiti citizens just back from Iran, without giving more details. The five previously reported cases were passengers returning on a flight from the Iranian city of Mashhad, where Iran’s government has not yet announced a single case of the virus.
Kuwait had halted transport links with Iran over the weekend and said it was evacuating its citizens from Iran.
An Iraqi family of four who returned from a visit to Iran tested positive for the coronavirus, the first Iraqis known to have caught the disease.
The four cases in Kirkuk province brought Iraq’s total to five after it reported its first case on Monday, an Iranian theology student in Najaf. Iraq is deeply concerned about its exposure to the Iranian outbreak, as it has deep cultural and religious ties with its neighbor and typically receives millions of Iranians each year.
The Iraqi government, which has already banned all travel from China and Iran, added Italy, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Japan to its travel ban list on Tuesday. Returning Iraqi citizens are exempt, as are diplomats.
Populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr suspended a call for his followers to hold a “million-man” protest, saying he had decide to forbid the events “for your health and life, for they are more important to me than anything else.”
“I had called for million-man protests and sit-ins against sectarian power-sharing and today I forbid you from them for your health and life, for they are more important to me than anything else,” he said in a statement. It was not immediately clear how the government’s call on citizens to avoid public gatherings would affect the strength of anti-government protests, and the response of security forces.
A Turkish Airlines plane flying from Iran was diverted to Ankara on Tuesday at the Turkish Health Ministry’s request and an aviation news website said one passenger was suspected of being infected by coronavirus.
Turkey’s Demiroren news agency broadcast video showing ambulances lined up beside the plane, with several personnel wearing white protective suits on the tarmac.
The plane was flying from Tehran and had been scheduled to land in Istanbul. Turkey shut its borders to Iran on Sunday and cut flights due to the spread of the virus in that country.
Oman’s Khasab port has suspended the import and export of goods to and from Iran from Feb. 26.