Libya could be hit by UN sanctions

Malta foreign minister George Vella warns against foreign intervention in Libya

Foreign affairs minister George Vella said “we’ll have to wait and see whether the UN imposes any sanctions.”
Foreign affairs minister George Vella said “we’ll have to wait and see whether the UN imposes any sanctions.”

The divisions in Libya this week reached new heights as the North African country now has two parliaments, two governments and two prime ministers.

In comments to MaltaToday, foreign minister George Vella said that Malta recognises the government led by Abdullah al-Thinni, however he warned that the situation was volatile and called for a cautious approach.

Echoing the statement issued by the EU on Monday, Vella insisted that Malta recognises the democratic legitimacy of the recently elected House of Representatives and pinned his hopes on the planned discussions at the United Nations Security Council in the coming days.

Hinting at possible conclusions to be reached in New York, Vella said “we’ll have to wait and see whether the UN imposes any sanctions,” adding that “it is easier for the conflict to recede by giving Libyans the opportunity to settle their differences without any external intervention”.

Vella said that economic sanctions could have an effect but a ceasefire and long-lasting peaceful solution to the violence in the North African country could only be achieved by bringing all parties together.

While recognising the complex situation, the minister said “warring militias need to be brought together. Peace can only be achieved around a table and it’s not in anybody’s interest for the fighting to continue.”

The current fighting began after the June elections, in which Islamist candidates lost the majority held in the previous parliament, and renegade general Khalifa Hifter began a military campaign against Islamist-allied militias in Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi.

Meanwhile, fighters from the western region of Zintan and Misrata to the east of Tripoli, former allies during the NATO-backed campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi fell out and turned parts of Tripoli into a battlefield.

On Monday, Libya’s former parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), appointed a new prime minister in a move which is set to deepen the country’s political split, as warring factions vie for control of the oil-rich nation.

The GNC reconvened on Monday in Tripoli and elected Islamist-backed Omar al-Hassi as prime minister, in an attempt to replace the House of Representatives which was elected in June, effectively ending the political dominance that factions linked to the Muslim Brotherhood had in the previous legislature.

Following the withdrawal of the Zintani forces from Tripoli, the GNC said it replaced the House of Representatives, and tasked al-Hassi, a lecturer in political science at the University of Benghazi, with forming a “salvation government”.

He said that the divide in Libya is now “clear and definite” with the Zintani militias from the western part of the country backing the Tobruck government and the Islamist militias from eastern cities of Misrata and Benghazi supporting the General National Congress.

“Ironically the House of Representatives backed by the western militias has its seat in the far-eastern city of Tobruk while the Islamists whose power base is in the east has reinstated the GNC in Tripoli which is in the west.”

Vella explained that the Maltese government recognises the Tobruk government as Libya’s legitimate government following the June elections, which were declared lawful by international observers.

On the other hand, while welcoming the “calmer situation in Tripoli” he pointed out that the Maltese government does not recognise the GNC government.

After weeks of fighting, in which over 1,000 people were killed and thousands fled their homes in the capital, the Zintani forces withdrew from their positions in the capital, including Tripoli International Airport, on order of the Tobruk government. 

Tobruk representative, Saleh Hashim, confirmed that the House of Representatives requested all fighting factions in Tripoli to withdraw and observe a ceasefire.

Furthermore, Zintani spokespersons claimed that Misratan forces took Tripoli International Airport and their other bases in the capital after reneging on a ceasefire deal that would have seen both sides pull out of the city.

After the Zintani’s withdrawal, most of Tripoli has been calm, with fighting mainly restricted to the frontlines in the south and parts of the west of the city.

“I expect the fighting in Tripoli to recede,” Vella said, however he added that residents are living in fear of a complete takeover by Islamist forces from the eastern part of the country.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni’s private residence in Tripoli was ransacked and torched by Islamists, while a number of pro-Tobruk government journalists and newspaper offices were also attacked.

Although the demarcation lines are now clearer than ever, Vella warned that the west and neighboring countries should not ignore the heterogeneous nature of the Islamist front.  

“The Misrata faction are moderate Islamists and are dedicated to trade more than anything else. Moreover, in the 2011 conflict which led to the downfall of Gaddafi, the people in Misrata endured terrible grief and they are very grateful to Malta for the aid we had sent to the area.”

He said that while Libya is a predominantly Sunni country, there are “different shades of Islamists,” with radical fanatics in Benghazi being a completely different kettle of fish from the moderate Islamists in Misrata and other areas.

According to US officials, the United Arab Emirates has secretly carried out air strikes against militias in Libya using bases in Egypt.

Vella espoused the position taken by France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States who on Monday said that “outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition”.

Asked whether he agreed with external intervention, Vella said that as the experience in other countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan showed “the less interference the better as this could lead to further radicalisation and extremism”.