CAIRO (AP) — Italy’s chief diplomat paid an unannounced visit to Libya on Tuesday to press for an end to the bloody civil war following cease-fire initiatives by the U.N.-supported government and rival parliament.
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio met with Fayez Sarraj, head of the Government of National Accord based in the capital Tripoli, before heading to eastern Libya to meet with Aguila Saleh, speaker of the rival Tobruk-based House of Representatives, Libyan officials said.
Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled long time ruler Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
Sarraj announced a cease-fire Aug. 21 and called for demilitarizing the key city of Sirte and the nearby area of Jufra, which would mean the withdrawal of forces of military commander Khalifa Hifter. Sirte is the gateway to Libya’s major oil export terminals also controlled by Hifter’s forces
Saleh, a Hifter ally, said he supported the demilitarization of Sirte but did not mention Jurfa.
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 the city.
Hifter refused Sarraj’s proposal as “deception” and a move that could thwart international efforts to secure a lasting cease-fire.
Sarraj’s office said in a statement that he discussed with Di Maio on Tuesday “points of agreement” with Saleh on implementing a permanent cease-fire and demilitarization of Sirte and Jufra.
Sarraj’s office said in a statement that he discussed with Di Maio accelerating the return of Italy’s construction and engineering firms to Libya, where for decades they were heavily involved in building projects.
Italian state radio said earlier Tuesday that Di Maio was trying to revive former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s plan of more than a decade ago to construct a highway across Libya, dubbed the ’’highway of peace," and a new international airport for Tripoli.
Separately, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell also met with Sarraj in Tripoli.
They discussed the EU’s naval operation, which tries to enforce a U.N. arms embargo on the conflict-torn country. Sarraj called for the operation to include arms transfer by air and land.
Previous efforts to secure lasting cease-fires have stalled. The two sides also agreed on the need of an “effective” international support to the political solution to Libya’s conflict, the statement said.
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.
Associated Press writer Frances D’Emilio contributed from Rome.