PARIS, Nov 13 — French President Emmanuel Macron hosted leaders and diplomats in Paris on Friday for an international conference aimed at ensuring Libya sticks to a plan to hold elections in December and turn a new page after a decade of violent conflict.
The North African country has been mired in civil war since the overthrow of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in a 2011 uprising, with the bloodshed drawing in competing Libyan factions and Islamist groups, as well as regional powers.
The presidential vote on December 24 is the core part of a UN plan to help restore stability, but the calendar has been under pressure as tensions flare once more between rival camps.
There are also fears over whether the various factions will recognise the results of the vote, which could mark a turning point for a country that has become a major departure point for migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean for Europe.
Key players attending the meeting include US Vice President Kamala Harris and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, one of Paris’s closest allies in the Middle East.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi are also present as co-hosts as well as several African leaders and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
‘Meet the timeline’
“The elections are within grasp. There is a strong momentum in Libya for them to go ahead. The stability of the country is at stake,” said a French presidential official, who asked not to be identified by name.
The scheduling also remains unclear, after Libya’s parliament in early October pushed back legislative elections until January, though world powers and the UN want them held simultaneously with the presidential vote.
“We are trying to help them meet the timeline that was established with help from a UN-facilitated process,” said a senior US official travelling with Harris.
The meeting represents the latest foray into high-stakes international diplomacy by Macron, who is expected to seek re-election in April and whose country takes on the EU presidency in January.
In May 2018, a year into his term in office, Macron also convened key Libyan leaders for a conference in Paris where they agreed to hold elections that year.
Since then, France has faced accusations that it favoured Khalifa Haftar, the secular, Moscow-educated Haftar strongman in eastern Libya, against the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Despite French weapons being found on a base used by pro-Haftar forces in 2019, Paris has rejected the claims.
Macron wants the conference to endorse a plan for the departure of all foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya, the French presidential official said.
Turkey sent in troops as well as pro-Ankara militia units from Syria to shore up the Tripoli government.
In a new sign of the tense relations between Ankara and Paris, Turkey has sent only its deputy foreign minister, Sedat Onal.
Observers also accuse Moscow of deploying mercenaries belonging to the Wagner group, which is allegedly controlled by a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Pro-Haftar forces said in a statement ahead of the conference that 300 foreign mercenaries fighting on their side would leave the country, “at the request of France”.
The nationality of the fighters was not specified and no timeline was given. The UN estimates that 20,000 mercenaries and foreign fighters are deployed in Libya.
Libya will be represented by transitional presidential council Mohamed al-Menfi as well as Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah.
One prominent absentee is Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was invited by Paris but is staying away after taking umbrage at comments by Macron criticising his country’s “political-military system”.
Jalal Harchaoui, an expert at the Global Initiative think-tank, warned world powers including France against exacerbating existing tensions, if they are perceived as taking sides in the conflict.
“The time horizon is extremely tight, every day counts,” he said. — AFP