By Ahmed Elumami
TRIPOLI (Reuters) – The United Nations is determined to hold Libya’s national conference on possible elections on time despite a surge of fighting in the country’s eight-year conflict, a senior U.N. envoy said on Saturday.
G7 foreign ministers warned eastern Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar to desist from his thrust on the capital Tripoli, menacing the internationally recognised government there, or face possible international action.
Ghassan Salame was speaking to reporters in Tripoli a day after Haftar’s forces said they had advanced into the capital’s southern outskirts and taken its former international airport.
The offensive by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), allied to a parallel administration based in the eastern city Benghazi, escalated a power struggle that has fractured the oil-producing country since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
The United Nations aims to stage a conference in the southwestern town of Ghadames on April 14-16 to weigh elections as a way out of the country’s factional anarchy, which has seen Islamist militants establish a toehold in some areas.
Salame, then U.N. special envoy to Libya, said he was striving to prevent the new crisis from getting out of control. “We have worked for one year for this national conference, we won’t give up this political work quickly,” he said.
“We know that holding the conference in this difficult time of escalation and fighting is a difficult matter. But we are determined to hold it on time unless compelling circumstances force us not to.”
At a G7 meeting in France, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he and his counterparts had agreed they must exert pressure on those responsible for the intensification of fighting in Libya, especially Haftar.
Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi said Haftar must heed international warnings to halt his advance on Tripoli or else “we will see what can be done”.
CRUCIBLE OF INSTABILITY
The United Nations wants to find agreement on a road map for elections to resolve the prolonged instability in Libya, an oil producer and transit point for refugees and migrants trekking across the Sahara with the aim of reaching Europe.
In Cairo on Saturday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the crisis in neighbouring Libya could not be resolved through military means, though insecurity there had long been a source of worry.
“Egypt has supported from the beginning a political agreement as a tool to prevent any military solution” in Libya, Shoukry said during a joint news conference with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov broadcast on state TV.
Lavrov said Russia wanted all political forces in Libya to find an agreement and warned against foreign meddling there.
There were no reports of significant fighting on Saturday, a day after an LNA spokesman and residents reported that Haftar’s forces had seized Tripoli’s former international airport.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres departed after meeting Haftar to try to avert full-blown civil war. “I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned. I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli,” he said on Twitter.
Haftar, 75, who casts himself as a foe of Islamist extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mould of Gaddafi, was quoted by Al-Arabiya TV as telling Guterres his offensive would continue until terrorism was defeated.
The coastal capital Tripoli is the ultimate prize for Haftar’s eastern parallel government.
In 2014, he assembled former Gaddafi soldiers and in a three-year battle seized the main eastern city of Benghazi.
This year, he took Libya’s south with its oilfields.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba in Cairo and John Irish in Dinard, France; Editing by Mark Heinrich)