Libyan commander dismisses rivals' cease-fire as 'deception'

CAIRO (AP) — Forces loyal to Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter on Sunday dismissed a cease-fire proposal by the U.N.-supported government as a “deception,” claiming that rival militias were preparing to attack the strategic city of Sirte.

Ahmed al-Mosmari, a spokesman for Hifter’s forces, told a televised news conference that the proposal “represents nothing but throwing dust in eyes and deceiving the local and international public.”

“This initiative is meant to cover up their true intentions in Libya,” he said, referring to Turkey and Qatar, the main backers of the U.N.-supported government in the capital, Tripoli. Hifter’s forces are allied with the rival parliament in eastern Libya.

Oil-rich Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country later split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.

Fayez Sarraj, head of the Tripoli government, on Friday announced a cease-fire and called for demilitarizing Sirte and the nearby Jufra area, which would mean the withdrawal of Hifter’s forces.

The cease-fire proposal, which came after international pressure, was seen as a breakthrough amid rising fears of a new escalation in the chaotic proxy war, as rival sides mobilize for a battle over Sirte.

Hifter’s refusal, however, could thwart international efforts to secure a lasting cease-fire and open the door for another destructive bout of fighting over Sirte, the gateway to Libya’s major oil export terminals controlled by Hifter’s forces.

Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the eastern-based House of Representatives and a Hifter ally, had said Friday he supported the demilitarization of Sirte, but did not mention Jurfa. He called for Sirte to be a temporary seat of the new government.

Al-Mosmari, the Hifter spokesman, on Sunday said any cease-fire requires Turkish-backed forces to pull back from the front line “to provide room for negotiations and a political solution.” He said Tripoli-allied militias, backed by Turkish warships, were building up to launch an attack on Sirte.

He did not comment on Saleh’s cease-fire proposal.

Both Saraj and Saleh had said they want an end to an oil blockade imposed by Hifter’s camp since earlier this year, which has choked the Tripoli government. They also called for oil revenues, the country’s main source of revenue, to flow into the bank account of the National Oil Corporation outside Libya.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people protested in Tripoli outside the Cabinet headquarters on Sunday against corruption and dire living conditions in areas controlled by the U.N.-supported government. There were protests in other towns in western Libya as well.

A group of protesters attempted to storm the Cabinet, but were pushed back by security forces guarding the building who fired unspecified munitions to disperse the protest, according to a Tripoli resident who took part in the march. The protester, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said there were an unknown number of causalities.

The Interior Ministry in Tripoli accused “outlawed infiltrators” of firing at the protesters and said an investigation was opened.

Footage shared online showed protesters marching in central Tripoli and chanting slogans against Saraj’s government. The also chanted: “The people want the fall of the regime,” echoing the popular slogan of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that briefly defied despotism in the region.

Tripoli-allies militias also stormed the western town of al-Asabaa, detaining dozens for suspected ties with Hifter’s forces, two residents said. The militias took the town earlier this year from Hifter’s forces. The U.N. mission in Libya voiced concerns, saying that at least one civilian was reportedly kille, and the town was under “apparent forced lockdown while the civilian population is already under strain.”

The chaos in Libya has worsened in recent months as foreign backers increasingly intervene, despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.

Hifter is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Forces loyal to the government in Tripoli are backed by Turkey — a bitter rival of Egypt and the UAE in a broader regional struggle — as well as from the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar and Italy.

Hifter’s forces launched an offensive in April 2019 trying to capture Tripoli. But his campaign collapsed in June when the Tripoli-allied militias, with heavy Turkish support, gained the upper hand, driving his forces from the outskirts of the city and other western towns.