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UN official warns of escalating Libyan war fuelled by 'foreign powers'

Turkey backs the GNA, while the UAE, Egypt and Russian mercenaries support Haftar’s forces [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 May, 2020

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The UN's acting special envoy to Libya has warned of foreign-backed escalation on both sides of the Libyan conflict.

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Libya, UN

The top UN official in Libya warned Tuesday that war in the North African country will "intensify, broaden and deepen" due to increasing foreign intervention and the influx of weapons, military equipment and mercenaries to both sides.

Acting UN special envoy Stephanie Williams said the escalation will have "devastating consequences for the Libyan people" who are "getting lost in the mix, their voices crowded out".

She urged the UN Security Council to apply "consistent and credible pressure on those regional and international actors that are fuelling the conflict".

Williams' video briefing to the Security Council came a day after forces allied to Libya's UN-supported government re-took a key military base on the outskirts of capital Tripoli from eastern-based militia forces, commanded by renegade general Khalifa Haftar.

The rebel leader had been trying to capture the capital since April 2019.

The loss of the Al-Watiyah airbase in Tripoli's southwestern desert region is a heavy setback for Haftar's forces.

In a statement late Tuesday, Haftar's military command announced that its fighters would retreat 2 to 3 kilometres from Tripoli's southern reaches during the last days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The withdrawal, it said, would expand the buffer zone around the besieged capital to allow families to visit each other safely in celebration of the Eid Al-Fitr festival 23 May. Haftar’s forces urged Tripoli militias that support the government to do the same "to avoid bloodshed" during the holiday.

There was no immediate response from the Government of National Accord based in the capital. But Col. Mohamed Gnounou, a spokesman for the Tripoli-allied forces, appeared to dismiss the ceasefire proposal, tweeting that "there is no red line" and "any target that poses a threat ... will be bombed without exception".

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups.

The turmoil in the oil-rich country has steadily worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervened in the war - despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.

Williams called on Berlin participants to urgently back a halt to the inflow of military support from abroad, which violates a UN arms embargo.

Turkey has sent armoured drones, air defences to prop up the UN-backed Tripoli government, while Haftar's forces are backed by the UAE, Egypt and Russian mercenaries. Syrian militants are fighting on both sides.

Libya's UN Ambassador Taher Al-Sunni told the council that government forces captured a number of Russian-made air defence systems at the Al-Watiyah airbase on Monday, destroyed UAE armoured vehicles, and found tons of high-tech weapons.

"And before that, we shot down several long-range drones made in China," he said.

Al-Sunni said government forces and their allies have also killed and captured UAE-recruited mercenaries from Chad, Sudan and Syria and those sent by Russia's Wagner Group.

The escalation in fighting comes despite increased international pressure on both sides to return to negotiating a political settlement and to halt the violence over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Libya has reported at least 65 cases of Covid-19, including three deaths.

But Tripoli-based Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord Fayez Sarraj vowed after Haftar's forces were routed from the airbase on Monday to "liberate all cities and regions" in Libya.

Ambassador Al-Sunni went further, telling the Security Council: "We assure you that the efforts to defeat the aggressor will continue with all our might and by all means to extend the state authority over all the country."

The Libyan envoy accused Haftar of rejecting every peaceful solution and delegating himself "as the ultimate rule and tyrant of the country", stressing said his "hands are stained with the blood of the innocent".

"Those who have been betting on him have lost their bet," Al-Sunni said. "He has taken himself out of any dialogue for peaceful solution."

During the council meeting, acting British Ambassador Jonathan Allen and US Ambassador Kelly Craft called for a halt to the transfer of military equipment and personnel to Libya, singling out Wagner Group mercenaries.

UN experts monitoring sanctions against Libya said in a report obtained by AP earlier this month that between 800 and 1,200 mercenaries provided by the private Russian security company to support Haftar have acted "as an effective force multiplier".

"Wagner Group activities continue to exacerbate the conflict," the UK's Allen said.

Alluding to Russia and the UN arms embargo resolution against Libya, he added: "I want to urge all Security Council members to abide by the resolutions of this council, which they themselves have voted for."


Agencies contributed to this report.

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