CAIRO (AP) — The speaker of Libya's east-based parliament urged Egypt on Wednesday to make good on its threat to send troops to fight rival Turkey-backed western Libyan forces should they attack the strategic city of Sirte, Egypt's state news agency reported.
Libya has for years been split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
Eastern-based forces under commander Khalifa Hifter launched an offensive in April last year to try to capture the capital, Tripoli, from the U.N.-supported government there. Hifter’s forces are backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli-allied militias are aided by Qatar, Italy and Turkey.
After sweeping across much of the country, making their way deep into the west and fighting in the suburbs of the Libyan capital, Hifter's forces were forced to retreat from most areas they captured in their offensive. That reversal came after Tripoli-based fighters, with Turkish support, gained the upper hand in the war earlier this month.
The Tripoli forces retook the capital’s airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city and a string of key towns nearby. They threatened also to retake Sirte, the birthplace of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi who was ousted and killed in 2011. Taking Sirte could allow them to gain control of oil fields and facilities in the south that Hifter had seized earlier this year as part of his offensive on Tripoli.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi warned over the weekend that any attack on Sirte, a city on the Mediterranean coast, or the inland Jufra air base by the Tripoli forces would amount to crossing a “red line.” He said Egypt could intervene militarily to protect its western border with the oil-rich country.
The Tripoli-based government said it considered el-Sissi’s comments a “declaration of war,” while authorities in the east welcomed his support.
Aguila Saleh, speaker of the east-based House of Representatives, was quoted by Egypt's MENA news agency as saying that an Egyptian intervention in Libya would be “legitimate ... if the terrorist and armed militias crossed the red line" determined by el-Sissi.
“The Libyan people are officially asking for Egypt to interfere with military forces if the necessities of maintaining Libyan national security and Egyptian national security require this,” Saleh was quoted as saying.
El-Sissi’s threat prompted Italy, Germany and the United States to push for a cease-fire, fearing an even wider war. Arab League foreign ministers also warned against a “continuation of military action that alters existing front lines” in Libya.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio arrived in the Libyan capital Wednesday, where he met with Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, according to a statement from Sarraj’s office.
The statement said Di Maio and Sarraj both rejected “the negative foreign interference” in the oil-rich country.
They also discussed the European Union’s naval operation in the Mediterranean aimed at enforcing a U.N. arms embargo on Libya, the statement said, without providing details.
Di Maio told reporters after his return to Rome that he conveyed to Sarraj Italy’s concerns about a possible attack on Sirte, which he said could lead to renewed fighting and more civilian casualties.
“I stated how essential it is to avoid a freezing of the conflict, and that this possibility would lead to a de facto division of the country,” he said.
Earlier this week, Di Maio said the need for a cease-fire is urgent given the Egyptian threat and called for the strong enforcement of the arms embargo..