CAIRO – The United Nations said Libya's warring factions have agreed to resume cease-fire talks, following days of heavy fighting and eastern-based forces retaking a key town from their rivals after a string of setbacks.
The U.N. Mission in Libya said it hoped the new round of talks would “mark the beginning of calm on the ground," especially to allow the country's war-scarred health system to cope with a coronavirus outbreak.
Delegates from the rivals, Khalifa Hifter’s east-based forces and militias allied with the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli, will conduct the talks through video calls because of the pandemic, the U.N. Mission said in the announcement late Monday. It didn't say when the talks would resume or give further details.
As the foreign-fueled proxy war teeters on the edge of a major escalation, the statement signaled that both sides, and their foreign backers, may prefer to pull back from the brink.
Spokespeople for the military factions did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and the fate of the political process remains unclear after previous agreements collapsed.
On Sunday, Hifter’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces recaptured the strategic town of al-Asabaa, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of the capital, after launching airstrikes on militias in the area, according to Ahmed al-Mosmari, a spokesman for the group. Their troops were chasing Tripoli-allied forces to their stronghold in the nearby town of Gharyan, he added.
A statement for the Tripoli-allied forces did not acknowledge the defeat, with spokesman Mohamed Gnono saying only that they were targeting LAAF forces on the town’s borders. But two Tripoli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters, admitted they lost the town after heavy shelling and airstrikes by eastern forces.
Control of the town gives the LAAF better access to Tarhuna, their main western stronghold and supply line southeast of the capital.
Hifter's gain more broadly reflects the seesawing nature of the war, which in recent weeks had turned dramatically in favor of rival Turkish-backed Tripoli militias that ousted Hifter's forces from a key western airbase and several towns. The Tripoli government had been struggling to fend off a yearlong siege of the capital by Hifter's forces when Turkey escalated its air support.
The battle for Tripoli has threatened to plunge Libya into chaos on the scale of the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, as foreign backers increasingly intervene.
Hifter is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli-allied militias are aided by Turkey, Qatar and Italy.
Last month, in an unusually bold statement, the U.S. military accused Russia of deploying 14 aircraft to Libya to help Hifter’s forces, saying the move was part of Moscow's longer term goal to establish a foothold in the region that could threaten NATO allies. Russia dismissed the claims as “stupidity.”
The coronavirus has infected at least 168 people in Libya, but testing is extremely limited. The impact of a large outbreak would likely be severe given the continued fighting and the state of the country's health system.