World powers launch new push for peace in Libya

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World powers gathered Wednesday in Berlin to seek lasting peace in Libya by ensuring the conflict-wracked North African country stays firmly on the path towards general elections on December 24.

Representatives of Libya's interim government joined US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as well as the foreign ministers of regional and global leaders at the UN-sponsored talks.

Blinken urged the withdrawal of all foreign forces taking part in the conflict. A ceasefire agreement from October last year “has to be fully implemented including withdrawing all foreign forces", Blinken told reporters at a press conference in Berlin ahead of the talks.

Blinken also addressed the issue of Ukraine and said the US and Germany would stand together to prevent Russia from taking any “provocation action” against Ukraine “or imprisoning Alexei Navalny or spreading disinformation in our democracies”.

The US secretary of state said Washington was concerned with strengthening Europe’s energy security and pointed to Russia’s Nordstream 2 project adding that the US wants to ensure Russia does not use energy as a “coercive tool” against Ukraine or Europe.

Following the talks, Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush said there was progress on the issues of foreign mercenaries in the country and that "hopefully within coming days" they would be withdrawn on both sides of the conflict, after an international meeting in Berlin.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, speaking at the same news conference, said he believed there was an understanding between Turkey and Russia that any withdrawal would be step-by-step to maintain balance and would not happen overnight.

The UN estimates that 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries are still on Libya's territory. And that presence is seen as a threat to the UN-backed transition leading to the elections.

Russian mercenaries in the east, Turkish troops in the west

The oil-rich country descended into chaos after dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising, resulting in multiple forces vying for power.

In recent years Libya has been split between two rival administrations backed by foreign forces and countless militias.

In October, after Turkey-backed forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli routed those of eastern military strongman Khalifa Haftar, the two camps agreed a ceasefire in Geneva.

Following the collapse of Haftar's offensive, military and political figures in the east and west negotiated a resumption of oil exports.

Meanwhile, the UN selected 75 Libyans to hold political talks on a roadmap. They agreed to replace the two rival administrations with an interim government to oversee the run-up to elections set for December 24.

The participants eventually selected a three-man presidency council headed by Mohammed al-Menfi, with Abdulhamid Dbeibeh as prime minister in a process publicly backed by all the international stake-holders.

The security situation in Libya has been slowly improving since.

However, the UN recently warned that progress has stalled, notably on a key requisite of the polls – the pullout of all foreign soldiers.

Western leaders have repeatedly called on the foreign fighters to depart.

But Russian mercenaries supporting Haftar's side in the east of the country are still in place.

Turkey meanwhile has troops in Tripoli, which it argues were sent under a bilateral agreement with the government, implying that they are not affected by a request for foreign troops to leave.

Delicate balancing act

But any withdrawal is also a delicate balancing act, said the German foreign minister.

"Foreign forces must leave the country in a gradual and uniform manner, so that there won't be a sudden military imbalance that could be used by one side for a sudden offensive," said Maas.

A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, stressed the sensitivity of the situation, saying solutions could not be found overnight.

But he also voiced cautious optimism that some progress could be made on Wednesday, because it was in no one's interest for conflict to break out again.

Jalel Harchaoui, Global Initiative senior fellow and an expert on Libya, also believed the talks could bring tangible help on the upcoming elections.

"Somebody could come up with a good idea of agreeing on a constitutional basis in July and be on course for elections in December," he said, referring to a key requisite for the polls.

"I think there's a good chance (for elections by year's end) and the Berlin process could help."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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