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France under pressure to condemn Haftar as EU seeks unity on Libya crisis

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Members of Misrata forces prepare for combat, April 8,  2019
Members of Misrata forces prepare for combat, April 8, 2019 -
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As EU Foreign Ministers discussed the future of Libya in a meeting on Monday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc was united on echoing the G7's call for eastern Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar to halt his advance on Tripoli.

She called for a truce and a return to political negotiations in the war-torn country.

Yet the positions of EU Member States on the Libya civil war have so far been everything but aligned.

France pressed to condemn Haftar

France is under growing pressure to condemn Haftar's advance on the capital Tripoli -- rather than blame all sides of the conflict, like in the G7 Foreign Ministers statement issued last week.

"We urge all involved parties to immediately halt all military activity and movements toward Tripoli," the statement said.

It was German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas who clarified that Haftar was more specifically targeted by the G7 statement, while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian emphasised the need for a 'political solution' in Libya.

"Officially, France is on the side of the 'internationally recognised government' of Fayez Sarraj," said Barah Mikail, director of Stractegia Consulting and Associate Professor at Saint Louis University in Madrid. "But the French discomfort seems obvious: France, and in particular Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, has considered for a long time that Khalifa Haftar is a man to support in order not to lose him," Mikail continued.

"Khalifa Haftar's offensive is not really a surprise. There have been signs of preparations for months, but the timing is bad, just when the UN was planning a national conference. And this can only embarrass France before its European counterparts and the United States," Mikail told Euronews.

A French diplomatic source said on Monday that France had no prior warning of Haftar's advance on the capital and was not trying to clandestinely undermine the country's peace process.

"The immediate need in Libya is to protect the civilian population, put an end to the fighting, and get all the key Libyan players back around the table," the diplomat said. France had "no hidden agenda", the official added.

On Monday, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt singled out Haftar for criticism ahead of the EU Foreign Ministers Council. According to The Guardian newspaper, he will press France to condemn Haftar specifically.

Mikail said that even if France blamed anti-Sarraj forces in a statement, it would likely do so in an indirect manner in order not to upset Haftar and see him distance himself from Paris.

Mogherini plays down divisions

In a press conference following the EU Foreign Ministers meeting, Mogherini played down the bloc's divisions.

"There have been different perspectives", Mogherini told reporters, "but member states realise the need for a united European voice."

Mikail said European countries were in no way united when it came to Libya, if only because they are economic competitors in the North African country.

"I think Federica Mogherini was referring to a unanimous European condemnation of Khalifa Haftar's current strategy behind closed doors, but we are still waiting for an official declaration to this effect."

No formal written conclusions were adopted by EU Ministers, Mogherini said Monday.

Meanwhile, intense fighting continued on the ground between Haftar's forces and the internationally recognised government in Tripoli.

A spokesman for the Tripoli-based Health Ministry said on Monday fighting in the south of the capital had killed at least 25 people, including fighters and civilians, and wounded 80.

The LNA say 19 of its soldiers had died in recent days.

The United Nations said 2,800 people had been displaced by clashes and many more could flee.