The top UN official for Libya warned Wednesday that the conflict-torn North African country is at “a decisive turning point”, with foreign backers of its rival governments pouring in weapons and the misery of its people compounded by the coronavirus pandemic that appears to be “spiraling out of control”.
Acting special representative Stephanie Williams told the UN Security Council that its actions “will help determine whether the country descends into new depths of fragmentation and chaos, or progresses towards a more prosperous future”.
Oil-rich Libya was plunged into a disorder when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The county has since split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
Eastern military commander Khalifa Hifter launched an offensive in April 2019 trying to capture the capital of Tripoli. But Hifter’s campaign collapsed in June when militias backing the UN-supported government in Tripoli, with Turkish support, gained the upper hand, driving his forces from the outskirts of the capital and other western towns.
Fayez Sarraj, head of the Tripoli-based government, announced a cease-fire August 21, but forces loyal to Hifter dismissed the move as a “deception”, claiming that rival militias were preparing to attack the strategic city of Sirte.
Williams told the council in a video briefing that an uneasy stand-off continues around Sirte, imperiling the lives of the city’s 130,000 vulnerable inhabitants as well as the country’s vital oil infrastructure, which comprises its economic lifeline.
While front lines have remained relatively quiet since June, she said that since the last UN briefing on July 8 Hifter’s forces have been reinforced by some 70 flights that landed at eastern airports and three cargo vessels reportedly docked at eastern ports, all carrying advanced weapons and military equipment.
At the same time, she added, 30 resupply flights arrived at airports in western Libya along with nine cargo vessels carrying military hardware for the Tripoli-backed forces.
Williams called these shipments an alarming breach of Libya’s sovereignty, a blatant violation of the UN arms embargo, and a violation of commitments by leaders of 12 world powers and other key countries that approved a 55-point road map to peace in Libya at a conference in Berlin on January 19.
She said the UN also continues to receive reports of a large-scale presence of foreign mercenaries and operatives, further complicating local dynamics and chances of a future settlement.
Williams didn’t say where the arms shipments or mercenaries came from.
Hifter is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, while the Tripoli forces are supported by the wealthy Gulf state Qatar and by Turkey, which is a bitter rival of Egypt and the UAE in a broader regional struggle over political Islam.
Williams said the misery of the Libyan people “is further compounded by the debilitating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
She said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has more than doubled in the last two weeks, with 15,156 cases and 250 recorded deaths as of September 1″.
“Exponential increases are a worrying trend, with community transmission now reported in some of Libya’s main cities, including Tripoli and Sebha, she said.
Further, she said, the true scale of the pandemic in Libya is likely to be much higher because of testing shortages and inadequate health care facilities, while dealing with virus cases is beset by an “extreme shortage of medical supplies and workers. On the military front, Williams said the U.N. has continued discussions with delegations from both sides.
She urged the Security Council to encourage the parties to refrain from insisting on unrealistic and maximalist positions and to participate in good faith, for the sake of their country. There is no military solution, she said, and the only path out is through dialogue and compromise.
The Security Council is starting to discuss a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN political mission in Libya. It is scheduled for a vote on September 14.