Foreign powers back Libya ceasefire as commander’s forces choke oil flows

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BERLIN/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Foreign powers agreed at a summit in Berlin on Sunday to strengthen an arms embargo on Libya and shore up a shaky ceasefire, but the meeting was overshadowed by blockades on major oilfields by forces loyal to commander Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar, whose self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) is bearing down on the capital Tripoli with the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russian mercenaries and African troops, attended the one-day summit in Germany despite having abandoned talks over a truce last week.

Turkey has rushed troops to Tripoli to help the internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj resist Haftar’s assault. Up to 2,000 fighters from Syria’s civil war have also joined the battle, a U.N. official said on Saturday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that the summit, attended by the main backers of the rival Libyan factions, had agreed that a truce in Tripoli over the past week should be turned into a permanent ceasefire to allow a political process to take place.

A special committee made up of five military men from each side will monitor the truce, she said. Foreign powers active in Libya had committed themselves to uphold an existing U.N. Arms embargo and stop shipping weapons there.

However Serraj and Haftar did not meet at the summit, Merkel said, highlighting the gulf between the two.

Libya has had no stable central authority since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by NATO-backed rebels in 2011. For more than five years it has had two rival governments in the east and the west, with streets controlled by armed groups.

Haftar, the east’s most powerful figure, has won backing from a range of foreign allies for an assault to capture Tripoli in the west, while Turkish support for Tripoli’s effort to repel him has turned the conflict into a proxy war. More than 150,000 people have been displaced by fighting for the capital.

Haftar quit a Turkish-Russian summit a week ago and escalated the conflict on Friday when eastern oil ports were shut down. Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) said the shutdown was directly ordered by Haftar’s forces and would cut oil production by 800,000 barrels a day.

On Sunday, as international leaders were gathering in the German capital, the NOC said the major southwestern fields of El Sharara and El Feel were closing after forces loyal to Haftar shut a pipeline.

Any lasting closure could hit Tripoli hard since the government relies on oil revenues to fund its budget. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was very worried about the closure.

A call for a ceasefire from Russia and Turkey helped reduce fighting a week ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin said ahead of a meeting with Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the conference.

“We don’t lose hope that dialogue will continue and the conflict will be solved,” Putin said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a picture as he arrives to attend the Libya summit in Berlin, Germany, January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

UNWILLING TO LAY DOWN ARMS

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio called the summit a “point of departure” for achieving a ceasefire and blocking a flow of arms into Libya that has accelerated with Haftar’s offensive.

Italy, the former colonial power, has a particular interest in Libyan security as the main destination of hundreds of thousands of African migrants sent across the Mediterranean by smugglers until a sharp downturn in flows in 2017.

But since the NATO bombing campaign that helped overthrow Gaddafi, Western countries have stepped back from playing a decisive role in Libya, allowing Russia, Turkey and Arab states to take the lead as outside powers with the most clout.

While the focus is on creating a ceasefire so that talks can restart, diplomats are worried that both sides would use any lull in fighting to re-supply their frontlines.

“Both sides and their backers are not willing to lay down arms,” said a Western diplomat.

The draft communique calls on all parties to recognize the NOC – which says it is neutral and deals with all parties in Libya’s conflict – as sole entity authorised to sell Libyan crude, and urges them to refrain from attacking oil facilities.

U.S. Secretary of States Mike Pompeo and European and Arab leaders also attended the summit, and Haftar’s forces published pictures of him meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. The UAE sent its foreign minister.

Leaders will not attempt to broker a power-sharing agreement between Haftar and Serraj, the internationally recognized prime minister.

Slideshow (27 Images)

Both Serraj and Haftar met Merkel on different occasions. Serraj could be also seen hugging Erdogan, while Macron and Haftar were both seen smiling in pictures when they met in a corridor.

In a column published by Politico on Saturday, Erdogan called on Europe to support Turkey’s work in Libya providing military support to Serraj’s government.

Reporting by Ulf laessing, Humeyra Pamuk, Andreas Rinke, Daren Butler and Michael Nienaber; Additional reporting by James Mackenzie and Aidan Lewis; Writing by Ulf Laessing and Aidan Lewis; Editing by Peter Graff and Pravin Char

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