Libya's UN-supported government rejects rivals' cease-fire

CAIRO (AP) — Libya’s U.N.-supported government on Thursday rejected a unilateral cease-fire declared by forces loyal to a rival, east-based administration that have been besieging the capital of Tripoli for the past year, citing the collapse of past agreements with the rivals.

Commander Khalifa Hifter’s east-based forces had announced a halt to hostilities for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan following appeals from the U.N. and the West to redirect resources toward efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The abrupt declaration by Hifter’s forces followed a series of military setbacks, leading the Tripoli government to suspect the announced cease-fire has more to do with the state of the battlefield than the fear of COVID-19.

Militias allied with the Tripoli-based government have tilted the military balance this month, recapturing the country's western coastline and ratcheting up their assault on Hifter’s stronghold of Tarhuna in western Libya.

The Tripoli-based presidential council blamed Hifter’s forces, the so-called Libyan Arab Armed Forces, for failed past attempts at a cease-fire, which have destroyed trust on the ground, accusing them of seizing on the pandemic to escalate the Tripoli siege. The council pledged to continue its “legitimate self-defense, strike threats wherever they exist and stamp out illegal armed groups."

Nonetheless, the U.N. Mission in Libya on Thursday praised Hifter's forces for the cease-fire gesture and urged both parties to turn it into an on-the-ground reality and to resume stalled U.N.-sponsored truce talks, even if virtually.

In recent weeks, Hifter's forces have killed scores of civilians and bombed much-needed medical facilities, attacking two clinics this week alone. Just how fractured Libya remains was demonstrated by his speech earlier this week in which he dismissed a 2015 U.N.-brokered unity deal and said he would move to create a new government.

With no hope for a peace process in sight, Libya is facing a crippling public health crisis. The Health Ministry in Tripoli on Thursday reported the third death of the new coronavirus from among 61 cases reported countrywide, although testing remains limited.

A report by the U.N. mission on Thursday documented a 45% spike in the number of civilians killed in violence in the first three months of the year, compared to the last quarter of 2019. Ground fighting, targeted killings, airstrikes and improvised explosive devices killed 62 civilians and wounded 67 since January, it said, including 27 children. The report held Hifter's forces responsible for 81% of the casualties.

Libya sunk into chaos in 2011, when a civil war toppled and later killed long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Despite pledges to push a cease-fire and uphold a U.N. arms embargo at a peace summit in Berlin this year, foreign powers continue to send weapons and mercenaries to the warring sides.