TRIPOLI / BENGHAZI: France’s Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian was in Libya Monday to meet rival political leaders and offer support for a deal aimed at stabilizing the strife-torn North African country.
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and the divided nation’s eastern commander Khalifa Haftar signed an agreement in Paris in July committing them to a conditional cease-fire and to work towards elections in 2018. The deal did not include other key factions.
Western governments, worried about Islamist militants and smugglers thriving in Libya’s chaos, are pushing a broader U.N.-backed deal to unify Libya and end the instability.
In Tripoli, Le Drian met Sarraj and is expected to hold talks with Abdel-Rahman Swehli, a politician connected to some of Haftar’s rivals who heads a parliamentary council in the capital, Libyan officials said.
Le Drian is also to visit Misrata, Swehli’s home city and a base of opposition to Haftar, before heading to Benghazi to meet Haftar and to Tobruk to meet the head of an eastern-based parliament aligned with him.
“The minister wants to consolidate this agreement by getting the parties not invited in July to support it,” a French diplomatic source said.
“He wants to ensure that everyone is playing the game and lay the groundwork for elections.”
The French minister’s visit is in line with President Emmanuel Macron’s push for a deeper French role in bringing Libyan factions together in the hope of countering militant violence and easing Europe’s migrant crisis.
“Our objective is the stabilization of Libya in the interests of the Libyans themselves,” Le Drian said in a statement in Tripoli.
“A united Libya, equipped with functioning institutions, is the condition for avoiding the terrorist threat in the long term.”
He said the Paris deal was meant to support the U.N.-backed accord for a government of national unity. Le Drian met U.N. special envoy Ghassan Salame Sunday.
The French diplomatic source said the visit would fit into efforts by Salame to announce a road map to elections during the coming U.N. General Assembly.
“Sarraj and Haftar clearly want to measure themselves in elections,” the source said.
Libya would likely need to agree on a new constitution or electoral law before elections, which will be a difficult task for the country’s divided institutions. Organizing polls would also involve big logistical and security challenges.
Past Western attempts to broker agreements have often fallen victim to political infighting among rival factions and armed brigades vying for power in the OPEC oil producer.
Sarraj’s government has struggled to impose control and its presidential council is divided. Haftar has refused to accept its legitimacy. He has been gaining ground, backed by allies Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
“The cease-fire between non-terrorist elements is in general respected,” the French diplomatic source said. “Haftar’s advances are accompanied by a strengthening of Sarraj in the west so it’s creating a fragile balance that encourages a compromise.”
On the ground, meanwhile, Haftar’s forces said they had launched airstrikes Sunday on Daesh (ISIS) fighters after the militants made incursions south and east of their former coastal stronghold of Sirte.
The militant group has grown bolder in recent weeks, setting up temporary checkpoints, attacking local forces, and taking over a village mosque to lead prayers during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, Libyan officials say.
“They set up checkpoints that last just for 10 minutes and then leave. They have been moving around freely in and out of these towns, and in the desert too,” said Ibrahim Mlaitan, Sirte municipality’s head of security.
The increased activity has raised concern that Daesh could regroup around Sirte, from where it was driven out in December by local forces and a U.S. air campaign. Most militants were killed in the nearly seven-month battle, but an unknown number fled into the desert to the south and west.