‘Leave us alone to heal,’ Libya’s UN envoy tells foreign powers

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Updated 30 September 2021

‘Leave us alone to heal,’ Libya’s UN envoy tells foreign powers

‘Leave us alone to heal,’ Libya’s UN envoy tells foreign powers
  • In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Taher Elsonni highlights the challenges facing Libya and how foreign powers are making them worse
  • In addition to national reconciliation there is a need for international reconciliation between the international community and Libyans, he said.

NEW YORK: Libya’s efforts to heal after 10 years of war will require not only a national reconciliation, but also an international reconciliation between the Libyan people and the global community.
That is the view of Taher Elsonni, Libya’s permanent representative to the UN, who on Monday reiterated his country’s demand for an end to external interference and the withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries.
“Enough is enough,” he said during an exclusive interview with Arab News. “Libyans are tired of 10 years of chaos.
“As much as we talk about national reconciliation, there should also be international reconciliation. As much as we talk about confidence building, there should be confidence building between the international community and Libyans — and that starts with the simultaneous withdrawal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries, and support for the will of Libyans when they go through the electoral process.”
Libyans have been killed and their country ravaged by thousands of foreign fighters recruited by the rival forces in the country. As long as Libya’s “free will” is held hostage by these armed groups and their foreign sponsors, Elsonni said, conflicts will continue to rage in the country at a time when the proliferation of such proxy wars is causing instability across the region.
The rebels who killed Chadian President Idriss Deby in April, for example, were based in Libya, where they amassed money, accessed advanced weaponry and gained battlefield experience as guns-for-hire.
“The challenge with mercenaries is that no one acknowledges their presence,” said Elsonni.
The UN-brokered Libyan ceasefire agreement in October 2020 included a call for all 20,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters to withdraw from the country within three months. But when the UN Security Council discussed ways of repatriating them, observers noted that some council members were fueling the problem.
For example, Russia’s support for the Libyan National Army includes mercenaries from Russian private security company Wagner Group. Turkey, meanwhile, provided transport for thousands of Syrians to fight in Tripoli, paid them salaries and offered promises of Turkish citizenship. Other mercenaries operating in Libya hail from South Africa, the US, the UK, Australia and about 30 additional countries.
Meanwhile, Libyans attempt to navigate this sinister foreign presence as they walk an already tricky path toward national reconciliation, and attempt to consolidate the many small victories achieved in the past year as part of the political process.
These achievements — which paved the way for a ceasefire and the formation of an interim unity government tasked with shepherding the nation toward parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for December — would not have been possible without both Libyans and foreign powers reaching the conclusion that no one could win the war through military might, according to Elsonni.
“Everything was tried, and in the end everyone was convinced that there can be no military solution,” he said.
He conceded that all countries in the region are entitled to be concerned about preserving their security and national interests, but added: “You don’t need to intervene and interfere the way you did in order to have a stabilized region (and) boost the economy.
“Libya is a hub between Africa and Europe, East and West. Libyans are known for their modesty. I can no longer say Libya is a rich country, but it does have the means and the resources to come back, and with Libya stabilized we can find win-win deals that will satisfy everyone’s national interests as much as possible.
“So, let’s work together, put the past behind us and start a new phase. And let’s not provide an excuse for terrorism and extremism, which feeds on this chaos and perpetuates the conflict.”
The road to the national elections planned for December has been paved with as much fear as hope among Libyans.
Although the new Presidency Council managed to unify civilian executive bodies, the military remains fractured. Some fear that winners with weapons might start another war.
In the absence of a clear constitutional framework setting out the responsibilities of a new president, “who can guarantee that Libyans will not find themselves in the grip of yet another dictator?” asked Elsonni.
“There is a group of people that don’t want to lose the power they have today, so they are maneuvering and finding excuses for the elections not to happen,” he added.
“There are also those who fear losing power by having a high-level executive office, in the form of a president, that might lead to them losing popularity. Some want only parliamentary elections, and think a safer option is to have a steady state and give more time to the constitutional framework to be developed.
“And, finally, you have Libyans on the ground who are fed up with all the attempts of the past and want Libya as a state to have separation of power.
“The challenge in this last one is to have an ‘inclusive’ president, not one who has revenge in mind, because those who have ambitions to be president are all affiliated to a certain group, and so that is scaring people.”
All of the fears people have are valid, said Elsonni.
“But what are the alternatives that we have today?” he asked. “If I name all the obstacles that we face today, one would conclude that the risk of the elections not happening is high.”
Even if they do go ahead, he said, challenges will remain — but they at least offer the hope for change and a better future.
“Anyone who thinks elections will solve all of Libya’s problems is naive,” he said. “But we have had a sick patient for the past 10 years and we have been using the same medicine.
“Now we have the option of a new medicine in the form of elections. We are not sure how that will unfold — it’s a 50/50 risk. But a certain level of legitimate representation will get the ball rolling.”
Meanwhile, Elsonni said, national reconciliation remains “the foundation for any permanent peace in Libya.”
From the establishment of a High Commission for Reconciliation to the release, albeit symbolic, of some prisoners, there have been steps taken in the right direction.
Elsonni stressed the importance of “transitional justice” as a means toward lasting reconciliation and true healing of the nation.
“For there to be a comprehensive national reconciliation, truth needs to be revealed, and apologies issued,” he said.
Although he admitted that the responsibility for reconciliation ultimately lies primarily with the Libyan people themselves, Al-Sonni questioned the lack of useful international support for the efforts.
The ambassador, who was a UN staffer for 17 years and so is familiar with the organization’s methodologies, criticized the UN for adopting a “top-down approach” to Libya, which he said has undermined the role of civil society.
“If you follow all the dialogue that took place, they were all technical discussions that tackled military, political and economical challenges, but there was no national reconciliation track,” he said.
“There is also a lack of understanding of the Libyan context by the international community. For Libya to become a success story, we need to adopt a bottom-top approach, work on civil society and try to get the best of the tribal structure that links Libyans together.
“Some have tried to use our tribal structure as a way to fuel the war. But having tribes is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a golden key, I call it, which can lead us to peace if we use it correctly.”
Inclusivity is another important aspect to the process. Elsonni took part in the Sukhairat dialogue in 2015, and was one of the signatories to the final agreement for the formation of a national unity government.
“Not all parties who really had power on the ground were represented,” he said. “Many were completely excluded, such as the ex-regime loyalists.”
He warned that such “exclusion in any post-conflict reconciliation is one of the biggest mistakes you could make. It is a fatal error.”
Exclusion can also happen in the form of centralized governance, Elsonni said, which can, for example, cause people living outside of Tripoli, where much of the wealth is concentrated, to feel excluded.
Despite all these challenges, however, Elsonni is pinning his hopes on the next generation of Libyan youth.
“The only people who will solve this are our young people,” he said. “They are vocal and much more aware than their elders. The problem is that they still lack coordination and leadership.”
Elsonni also addressed allegations of flagrant abuses of human rights in Libyan detention centers. While he expressed regret over the fact that his country has become a place where “innocent people die,” he denied any accusation of systemic torture. Once again he pleaded with the international community to “help us make Libya stable and these issues will be resolved.”
He added: “We’re totally against such violations and we’re working hard to fix the system and protect the most vulnerable. But there is a difference between a government that doesn’t care and one that really tries, and sees this as a priority, but is spread thin with all the other different challenges and has resource problems.
“The problem is the hypocrisy of the West, and their unwillingness to devise a comprehensive solution for the migrant crisis. You cannot blame a country in conflict for what happens within it when it comes to migrants. Migrants who come to Libya aim to continue to Europe. Nobody wants to live in the hellfire of conflict, that goes without saying.”
Condemning the “double standards” of the international community, he said: “They ask us to accommodate those migrants when they know our resources are stretched thin. They ask us to shut down detention centers but they won’t tell us what to do with migrants who enter illegally, or those who are arrested at sea and pushed back to Libya.
“If you really care about migrants, then agree on a quota also and take in some of them.
“The countries that are being most forceful with Libya on this issue are the same ones that are shutting their doors to migrants. One such country literally took in four or five migrants out of the thousands that are trying to cross.
“The problem is bigger: it is EU competition between countries, and we know it. You want to blame us? Blame yourself first.”


Fire-ravaged Abu Sefein Church to undergo repairs

Fire-ravaged Abu Sefein Church to undergo repairs
Updated 20 sec ago

Fire-ravaged Abu Sefein Church to undergo repairs

Fire-ravaged Abu Sefein Church to undergo repairs
  • Egypt’s Armed Forces Engineering Authority tasked with project
  • Cash support for victims’ families from Al-Azhar and the government

CAIRO: President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has tasked the Armed Forces Engineering Authority to restore the Abu Sefein church, which was damaged by a fire that killed 41 people and injured 16 others on Sunday.

Hisham El-Swefy, head of the authority, telephoned Pope Tawadros II to inform him of the plan.

Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb has come to the aid of the families of the victims and is coordinating cash payouts for them with various NGOs.

Al-Tayeb sent a message of support to Pope Tawadros II.

“Al-Azhar and its scholars and sheikhs all stand by their brothers in this tragic accident and extend their sincere condolences to the families of the victims,” he said.

El-Sisi had earlier received messages of condolences from the presidents of Tunisia and Lebanon following the tragedy.

Prosecutor General Hamada El-Sawy confirmed that the Public Prosecution authority had completed its investigation into the incident and found that the victims had died of smoke inhalation.

El-Sawy said that 41 people had died, and 16 others, including four police officers, were injured.

El-Sawy stated that the authority had completed its questioning of the injured people.

The Egyptian Ministry of Interior confirmed that an electrical fault caused the fire, and that it broke out in the air-conditioning system on the second floor of the church building, which includes a number of classrooms.

Egypt’s Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly directed the Minister of Social Solidarity to pay compensation of EGP100,000 ($5,226) to every victim’s family, and a maximum of EGP20,000 ($1,045) to every injured person.

In an earlier statement, the Coptic Orthodox Church had said that the fire broke out during the Divine Liturgy at the building in the north of Giza, and that several worshipers were transferred to the Imbaba and Agouza hospitals.


Iran tanker retrieves oil seized by US, set to leave Greece

Iran tanker retrieves oil seized by US, set to leave Greece
Updated 31 min 42 sec ago

Iran tanker retrieves oil seized by US, set to leave Greece

Iran tanker retrieves oil seized by US, set to leave Greece
  • Oil seized by US from Lana prompted Iranian forces to seize two Greek tankers in the Arabian Gulf

ATHENS: An Iranian-flagged tanker has retrieved an oil cargo which the United States had confiscated and is set to leave Greece, sources familiar with the matter said on Monday.
The seizure from the Lana, formerly the Pegas, prompted Iranian forces in May to seize two Greek tankers in the Arabian Gulf which have not yet been released.
The United States had hired a tanker in April to impound the oil onboard the Lana tanker, which had been anchored off Greece.
The oil was then partly removed and placed aboard the Ice Energy tanker, which had been chartered by Washington and had been expected to sail to United States before Greece’s supreme court ruled that the cargo should be returned to Iran.
“The reloading process is complete,” one of the sources said. Another source said it was completed on Sunday.
The embassy of Iran in Athens said on Aug 12 on Twitter that the vessel would sail to Iran after the reloading was completed.
It was not clear if Lana, which had engine problems, could sail unassisted.
For over two months, Lana remained under arrest off the Greek island of Evia, near the town of Karystos. It was tugged to Piraeus following court orders that allowed its release.
The tanker has been anchored off Piraeus since late July.


Iran says to deliver ‘final’ nuclear talks proposal Monday

Iran says to deliver ‘final’ nuclear talks proposal Monday
Updated 49 min 22 sec ago

Iran says to deliver ‘final’ nuclear talks proposal Monday

Iran says to deliver ‘final’ nuclear talks proposal Monday
  • Iran may accept a final compromise worked out in Vienna to save the landmark 2015 deal
  • Tehran said US agreed to two of its demands

TEHRAN: Iran will respond to the European Union’s “final” draft text to save a 2015 nuclear deal by midnight on Monday, its foreign minister said, calling on the United States to show flexibility to resolve three remaining issues.
After 16 months of fitful, indirect US-Iranian talks, with the EU shuttling between the parties, a senior EU official said on Aug. 8 it had laid down a “final” offer and expected a response within a “very, very few weeks.”
While Washington has said it is ready to quickly seal a deal to restore the 2015 accord on the basis of the EU proposals, Iranian negotiators said Tehran’s “additional views and considerations” to the EU text would be conveyed later.
“Our answer will be given to the EU tonight at 12 midnight...There are three issues that if resolved, we can reach an agreement in the coming days,” Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said, suggesting Tehran’s response would not be a final acceptance or rejection of the EU proposal.
“We have told them that our red lines should be respected...We have shown enough flexibility...We do not want to reach a deal that after 40 days, two months or three months fails to be materialized on the ground.”
Diplomats and officials told Reuters that whether or not Tehran and Washington accept the EU’s “final” offer, neither is likely to declare the pact dead because keeping it alive serves both sides’ interests.
Amirabdollahian said that “the coming days are very important” to see whether the United States will show flexibility over the remaining three issues.
“It would not be end of the world if they fail to show flexibility...Then we will need more efforts and talks...to resolve the remaining issues,” he said.
The stakes are high, since failure in the nuclear negotiations would carry the risk of a fresh regional war with Israel threatening military action against Iran if diplomacy fails to prevent Tehran develop a nuclear weapons capability.
Tehran, which has long denied having such ambition, has warned of a “crushing” response to any Israeli attack.
“Like Washington, we have our own plan B if the talks fail,” Amirabdollahian said.
In 2018, then-President Donald Trump reneged on the deal reached before he took office, calling it too soft on Iran, and reimposed harsh US sanctions, spurring the Islamic Republic to begin breaching its limits on uranium enrichment.
The 2015 agreement appeared on the verge of revival in March after 11 months of indirect talks between Tehran and US President Joe Biden’s administration in Vienna.
But talks broke down over obstacles including Tehran’s demand that Washington provide guarantees that no US president would abandon the deal as Trump did.
Biden cannot promise this because the nuclear deal is a non-binding political understanding, not a legally binding treaty.
“They need to adopt a realistic approach about guarantees. Regarding the two other remaining issues, they have shown some relative flexibility verbally, but it needs to be mentioned in the text,” Amirabdollahian said.


Drone attack targets US base in Syria, no casualties

Drone attack targets US base in Syria, no casualties
Updated 15 August 2022

Drone attack targets US base in Syria, no casualties

Drone attack targets US base in Syria, no casualties
  • Attack took place in the vicinity of Al-Tanf base near where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet
BEIRUT: An attack with drones hit a compound run by American troops and US-backed Syrian opposition fighters in eastern Syria on Monday, the US military said, adding that there were no casualties or damage.
The military said the attack took place in the vicinity of Al-Tanf base near where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack.
US and coalition troops are based at Al-Tanf to train Syrian forces on patrols to counter militants from the Daesh group. The base is also located on a road serving as a vital link for Iranian-backed forces, stretching from Tehran all the way to Lebanon.
The military statement said coalition troops in coordination with opposition fighters — known as Maghaweir Al-Thowra — “responded to an attack by multiple unmanned aerial systems in the vicinity of Al-Tanf Garrison” on Monday morning.
It said the troops successfully engaged one of the drones preventing its impact while a second one detonated within the opposition forces’ compound, “resulting in zero casualties or reported damage.” The other attempted drone strikes were not successful, it added.
Maj. Gen. John Brennan, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force, condemned the drone strike. “Such attacks put the lives of innocent Syrian civilians at risk and undermine the significant efforts by our Partner Forces to maintain the lasting defeat of IS,” he said, using an acronym for the Daesh group.
The attack occurred hours after Israeli airstrikes on western and central Syria killed three soldiers, wounded three others and caused material damage.
A Syrian opposition war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the Israeli strikes hit Syrian army positions where Iran-backed fighters are based.
Drone attacks on Al-Tanf have been rare.
In October last year, US officials said they believe Iran was behind a drone attack that month in Al-Tanf saying at the time that they believe that the attacks involved as many as five drones laden with explosive charges. It said the drones hit both the US side of Al-Tanf garrison and the side where Syrian opposition forces stay.
The October attacks came days after an Israeli airstrike on central Syria.

Iran denies being involved in attack on Salman Rushdie

Iran denies being involved in attack on Salman Rushdie
Updated 15 August 2022

Iran denies being involved in attack on Salman Rushdie

Iran denies being involved in attack on Salman Rushdie

TEHRAN, Iran: An Iranian government official denied on Monday that Tehran was involved in the assault on author Salman Rushdie, in remarks that were the country’s first public comments on the attack.
The comments by Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, come over two days after the attack on Rushdie in New York.
However, Iran has denied carrying out other operations abroad targeting dissidents in the years since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, despite prosecutors and Western governments attributing such attacks back to Tehran.
“We, in the incident of the attack on Salman Rushdie in the US, do not consider that anyone deserves blame and accusations except him and his supporters,” Kanaani said. “Nobody has right to accuse Iran in this regard.”
Rushdie, 75, was stabbed Friday while attending an event in western New York. He suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and an eye, his agent said. He was likely to lose the injured eye.
His assailant, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the attack through his lawyer.
The award-winning author for more than 30 years has faced death threats for “The Satanic Verses.” Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, or Islamic edict, demanding his death. An Iranian foundation had put up a bounty of over $3 million for the author.
Kanaani added that Iran did not “have any other information more than what the American media has reported.”

Freedom of speech does not justify Rushdie's insults upon religion in his writing, Kanaani said.
The West “condemning the actions of the attacker and in return glorifying the actions of the insulter to Islamic beliefs is a contradictory attitude,” Kanaani said.