The United Nations says it will press ahead with a national conference next week on possible Libyan elections even as the country teeters on the brink of civil war.
Forces of Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar made a dramatic move toward the capital of Tripoli on April 6, taking the former international airport.
That prompted foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) nations, who were meeting in France, to warn of possible action against the commander if he didn’t stop his advance toward the internationally recognized government based in Tripoli.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged all sides to reach a peace deal while simultaneously warning against foreign meddling in the North African nation.
The UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, said he hoped to stem the crisis and forge ahead with a conference in the southwestern town of Ghadames to consider whether elections can put an end to the factional rivalries that are holding the country back.
“We know that holding the conference in this difficult time of escalation and fighting is a difficult matter. But we are determined to hold it on time unless compelling circumstances force us not to,” he told reporters in Tripoli.
After an emergency meeting on April 5, the UN Security Council warned that the military activity of Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) was putting the country’s stability at risk.
The UN is looking at the elections as a way of restoring stability in a country that is often the transit hub for refugees heading north through Africa to Europe.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the move by Haftar’s forces “untimely” and said there can only be a political solution to Libya’s problems.
“It is important that all of the international community takes the same line,” Le Drian said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met with Haftar in Benghazi on April 5 as part of efforts to forestall an outright assault on Tripoli and avoid a bloody civil war.
“I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned. I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli,” he said on Twitter after his meeting.
Guterres has also been in Tripoli this week to help organize a national reconciliation conference planned for later in April –a plan that looks increasingly unlikely with every day of continued fighting.
Russia, which has provided Haftar with backing in the past, claimed it was not helping the commander’s forces in the offensive and that it supported a negotiated political settlement that ruled out any new bloodshed.
Speaking in a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart in Cairo on April 6, Lavrov said Moscow was in contact with all parties in the conflict and also backed a mutual and peaceful agreement.
“Along with Egypt, we insist that the Libyans themselves should determine their future. They should start an inclusive and businesslike dialogue without any artificial deadlines, which some are trying to impose on them from the outside, and without being prompted against their will,” Lavrov said.
Haftar’s LNA on April 4 launched the offensive aimed at taking the capital.
Reuters and other news agencies said Haftar’s forces took the town of Gharyan, about 80 kilometers south of Tripoli after fighting against forces allied with Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, who is based in Tripoli.
Tripoli-allied forces also reportedly took dozens of soldiers from Haftar’s units prisoner in a town west of the capital.
The advance by Haftar’s LNA was a sharp escalation of the power struggle that has gone on since longtime Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011.
Haftar is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), which are worried about the threat of Islamic militants.
In 2014, he assembled former Qaddafi soldiers and in a three-year battle seized the main eastern city of Benghazi. He captured the south with its crucial oilfields in recent months.
Haftar traveled to Moscow twice in 2016 seeking political support. The Financial Times has reported that Russia has helped the administration Haftar set up in eastern Libya issue a parallel currency, a pointed challenge to the Tripoli-based central government.
Russian officials sharply criticized U.S. and European actions that preceded Qaddafi’s ouster and blamed the West for the chaos that engulfed Libya.
With Dmitry Medvedev as president, Russia abstained from the vote on the UN Security Council resolution that allowed air strikes by NATO forces in 2011, but Vladimir Putin — then prime minister — likened it to “medieval calls for crusades.”
The U.S. State Department also sounded the alarm about the new fighting.
“At this sensitive moment in Libya’s transition, military posturing and threats of unilateral action only risk propelling Libya back toward chaos,” the department said in a statement issued jointly with France, Italy, Britain, and the United Arab Emirates.
The U.A.E. added its name to the statement even though it has supported Haftar.