Vella expresses optimism about Libya peace talks

Describing the talks as “a very good start,” foreign affairs minister George Vella told MaltaToday that the international community must use all the tools at its disposal to bring the warring factions together.

As Libya and the rest of the Islamic world celebrates Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, the situation in the country remains as volatile as ever.

Following their efforts to topple the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Western powers are concerned that Libya will descend into further turmoil as a weak central government cannot control competing militias in a country awash with weapons.

This week, scores of fighters were killed in the eastern city of Benghazi where fighters loyal to renegade General Khalifa Haftar have been fighting Islamist brigades, including Ansar al-Sharia, accused by the US of killing its ambassador to Libya in 2012.

The clashes came just days after the United Nations-sponsored talks which brought together rival factions in the western city of Ghadames, near the borders with Algeria and Tunisia.

Describing the talks as “a very good start,” foreign affairs minister George Vella told MaltaToday that the international community must use all the tools at its disposal to bring the warring factions together.

Three years after NATO forces helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is effectively divided in two, with two separate governments and parliaments, each backed by rival militias claiming to be the legitimate representatives of the country’s six million citizens.

Following elections in June, the elected parliament relocated to the remote eastern city of Tobruk after effectively losing control of the capital Tripoli, where an alliance of armed groups holds sway.

After weeks of fighting in the summer, an armed faction from the western city of Misurata took over the capital, driving out fighters from the city of Zintan in the east who controlled Tripoli airport and the surrounding areas following the fall of Gaddafi.

After driving the Zintanis out, the new forces controlling Tripoli have installed a parallel parliament and prime minister.

The Tobruk-based government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni is internationally recognised but Libya’s three main cities are almost entirely outside its control.

Asked whether he favoured the involvement of the Misrata faction in the peace initiatives, Vella said “nobody should be excluded” and given “the Libyan’s people’s peaceful nature” Vella expressed his optimism on the possibility of achieving peace in the long-term.

With the country awash with weapons and hundreds of tribes fighting for territorial control, the prospect of the country splitting in three remains a strong possibility.

However, while admitting that “everything is possible,” Vella said that Libyans “dislike” federalism, adding that a split was not on the cards. 

Another round of talks is scheduled after the Eid al-Adha holiday, which ends this evening and while noting the participation of Malta’s ambassador to Libya, Joe Mangion together with the UK Prime Minister’s special envoy Jonathan Powell, Vella said he was confident that all external forces were converging on the need to find a peaceful solution.

Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the big Gulf players, have each taken a side, Qatar funding and providing weapons to the Islamists while the Emiratis backed the Tobruk government.

Vella said that despite the initial indications that foreign countries were inclined towards military intervention, all parties have come to an agreement over a peaceful solution.

“We believe that the long-term political transition can only be achieved through compromise and understanding of all sides.”

UN threatens to impose sanctions

The UN talks aim to reach a “framework agreement on the rules of procedures” for parliament and another on “the critical issues relating to the governance of the country”, the UN mission said.

The talks were brokered by the recently-appointed UN special envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, who described the talks as “very constructive and very positive”.

He said they had “agreed to start a political process and to address all issues in a peaceful way with a very strong call for a complete ceasefire”.

Despite Leon and Vella’s optimism, the UN Security Council threatened sanctions against factions who reject UN-brokered peace talks.

Echoing the UN’s aims, Al-Thinni – who was not present for the talks in Ghadames – is demanding the Misrata forces leave Tripoli, disarm and recognise the Tobruk-based government.

On the other hand, the Libya Dawn militia that controls Tripoli has rejected the talks and their Islamist allies in Benghazi issued their own statement rejecting the initiative as “unfair”.