GENEVA (AP) — The U.N. mission in Libya said Monday that the country’s warring sides had agreed to turn a shaky cease-fire into a formal deal, stirring modest hopes after weeks of sporadic violence that derailed negotiations.
As the latest round of U.N.-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 U.N. statement.
The return of thousands of displaced civilians will be monitored by military representatives in Geneva with support from the U.N. 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 Khalifa Hifter escalated their attacks on the capital, Tripoli, which is held by a rival U.N.-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 expectations for an agreement low.
A key sticking point throughout the talks has been the disarmament of fierce militias defending the capital against Hifter'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 U.N.-backed government's foreign minister, while addressing reporters in Geneva. “There are unlawful militias who abduct people and jeopardize their lives.”
The current cease-fire 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 North African country promised to push for the cease-fire 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 U.N. alleges. Clashes continue around the capital, as each side accuses the other of violating the cease-fire.
The latest round of fighting in Libya started last spring, when Hifter launched his assault on the capital in a bid to wrest power from the U.N.-backed government. The siege has killed thousands of people, and displaced over 150,000, according to the U.N.
The United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia, support Hifter's self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces. The embattled 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.
Siala, the Tripoli foreign minister, 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 rumor and secrecy. Dozens of the fighters have links to extremist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
“There are some Syrians” repelling Hifter'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.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.