Skip to main content

A damaged car is seen after an air strike east of Tripoli, Libya, in a Dec. 30, 2019, file photo.Ismail Zetouni/Reuters

The United Nations mission in Libya said Monday that the country’s warring sides had agreed to turn a shaky ceasefire into a formal deal, stirring modest hopes after weeks of sporadic violence that derailed negotiations.

As the latest round of UN-mediated talks between rival military leaders wrapped up in Geneva, both sides reached a draft deal “to facilitate the safe return of civilians to their areas,” according to a UN statement.

The return of thousands of displaced civilians will be monitored by military representatives in Geneva with support from the UN mission in Libya.

The delegates negotiating on behalf of Libya’s rival administrations must now send the draft for approval to their respective leaders who have the power to halt the fighting, a prospect that faces further obstacles. The representatives promised to reconvene in Geneva next month to hammer out details of the deal’s implementation.

Monday’s apparent breakthrough came days after eastern-based forces under the command of General Khalifa Hafter escalated their attacks on Tripoli, which is held by a rival UN-backed government. The attacks hit Tripoli’s civilian seaport, narrowly missing a highly explosive liquefied petroleum gas tanker and prompting the Tripoli administration to pull out of talks. The negotiations resumed days later, with low expectations for an agreement.

A key sticking point throughout the talks has been the disarmament of fierce militias defending the capital against Gen. Hafter’s assault. Officials from Libya’s Tripoli government expressed willingness to demobilize militias at the latest Human Rights Council session in Geneva on Monday. But it remains unclear whether the administration has the power to rein in the scores of disparate militias.

Tripoli “is not opposed to disbanding militias,” said Mohamed Taher Siala, the UN-backed government’s Foreign Minister, while addressing reporters in Geneva. “There are unlawful militias who abduct people and jeopardize their lives.”

The current ceasefire was brokered in January by Russia and Turkey, which back opposite sides in the conflict. But Libyan leaders never signed a pledge, let alone met face to face.

A high-profile international summit followed in Berlin, where world powers with interests in the oil-rich Northern African country promised to push for the ceasefire and uphold a widely flouted arms embargo.

Developments on the ground have repeatedly defied diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Foreign backers keep pouring weapons into the country, the UN says. Clashes continue around the capital, as each side accuses the other of violating the ceasefire.

The latest round of fighting in Libya started last spring, when Gen. Hafter launched his assault on the capital in a bid to wrest power from the UN-backed government. The siege has killed thousands of people, and displaced more than 150,000, according to the UN.

The United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia, support Gen. Hafter’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces. The beleaguered Tripoli administration, which controls just a shrinking corner of western Libya, has increasingly relied on Turkey for military aid.

In the latest twist of the nine-year conflict, Turkey, which has long trained and funded opposition fighters in Syria, has started airlifting hundreds of them over to support the Tripoli-based government.

Mr. Siala acknowledged for the first time on Monday the deployment of Syrian fighters to the front lines in western Libya, a contentious subject that for months had been shrouded in rumour and secrecy. Dozens of the fighters have links to extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

“There are some Syrians” repelling Gen. Hafter’s offensive, he said. “They have Turkish nationalities and are carrying Turkish passports.”

Turkey’s offers of citizenship to Syrian recruits has helped entice them to fight in Libya. This way, experts say, Turkey conveniently avoids risks to its own forces while establishing a sphere of influence in the eastern Mediterranean and securing rights to offshore oil and gas exploration.

In a speech last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also broke his silence on the presence of Syrian opposition fighters in Libya. He added that Turkey had suffered “a few” fatalities in Libya, but did not specify whether they were among Turkish or Syrian fighters.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.