LIBYA: Warning from UN Chief on military standoff in Sirte amid Haftar conundrum

By Janet Ekstract

ISTANBUL (TURKISH JOURNAL) – The conflict in Libya has reached its crescendo with a threatening military build-up in the strategic city of Sirte, halfway between Tripoli in the east and Benghazi in the west. Sirte is the key city for access to Libya’s vast oil fields which warlord and renegade Khalifa Haftar has managed to hang onto. Haftar’s backers want a stake in the oil and are unwilling to back down from the fight to retake Sirte. The warlord’s support primarily comes from Russia’s Wagner Group, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan and France. The irony In this protracted conflict is that while Haftar’s backers seek to blame Turkey for “foreign interference” – these same nations are the weapons suppliers to Haftar and his militia.

On Wednesday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the UN Security Council (UNSC) that Libya’s conflict is in a new phase as he explained: “The conflict has entered a new phase with foreign interference reaching unprecedented levels, including in the delivery of sophisticated equipment and the number of mercenaries involved in the fighting.” Guterres condemned the current situation in Libya at a ministers-level UNSC video conference, expressing his grave concern about the military build-up in Sirte.

Meanwhile, as tensions are racheting up in the region, it appears that none of the nations supplying advanced weaponry to Haftar are willing to take responsibility for their role in the conflict. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia refutes accusations of Russian involvement in Libya though it’s common knowledge that Russia’s Wagner Group has at least 1,200 mercenaries on the ground. Surveillance monitoring revealed more than two dozen flights between Russia and eastern Libya between August 2018 and  August 2019 by civilian aircraft that sanctions monitors claim are “strongly linked to, or owned by” the Wagner Group or its related companies. Sanctions monitors say there are at least 122 of Russia’s mercenaries in Libya that are “highly operational.” Nebenzia contests this and said: “But we know about other countries’ military personnel, including from those countries that accuse us, to be present on Libyan soil,  East and West,” he told the Security Council calling on all states with influence on the Libyan parties to push for a truce.

In addition, Libya’s Permanent Representative to the UN Taher al-Sunni said it “no longer accepts the UAE’s presence in its political dialogues.” He spoke at the UNSC session on Wednesday and said: “The UAE is involved in supporting the failed coup attempt in Libya without a doubt, and threatening international peace and security in several regions.” He added that Abu Dhabi “has not been able to refute until this day what has been mentioned in the UN reports against it and we no longer accept its presence in our political dialogue.” Meanwhile, UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told the Security Council that there are “roughly 10,000 Syrian mercenaries operating in Libya, approximately twice as many as there were six months ago.”

In May, press reports mentioned that a UN “confidante” reported by some U.S. media outlets stated that UAE formed an air bridge to supply weapons to its ally, Haftar – providing him with helicopters and drones to improve his military capabilities for his militia.  Al-Sunni also said that signing “security and military agreements, alliances, etc. with any country is a sovereign and legitimate right and we reject describing it as foreign interference.” He added: ‘If our agreements are illegal, then all our agreements with your countries, whether security, economic or oil, that you have concluded with us are also illegal.” Al-Sunni condemned “threats” by Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to interfere in Libya and arm the tribes there. He reiterated that Libya “will face any assault with firmness and strength.” In fact, The Arab League in June, announced that it found the GNA to be the “only legitimate” government in Libya and that agreements Turkey and Libya made were also “legitimate.”

What worries Haftar’s backers is Turkish involvement since the warlord suffered major military defeats thanks to Turkish military assistance to Libya’s legitimate army. After Haftar’s numerous defeats, Egypt attempted to broker a ceasefire which Libya rejected then Russia stepped in. According to numerous analysts, it appeared that Haftar’s days were numbered until Haftar began receiving additional military support from his three main backers and then Egypt threatening to get involved if the GNA attempted to retake Sirte.  Haftar’s forces were pushed out of Tripoli as well as the strategic city of Tarhuna where evidence of Haftar’s war crimes were discovered in the form of mass graves.

In the meantime, the secretary-general reiterated his worries, commenting: “We are very concerned about the alarming military build-up around the city and the high level of direct foreign interference in the conflict in violation of the UN arms embargo, UNSC resolutions, and commitments made by Member States in Berlin.” He added that between April and June of this year, the UN mission documented at least 102 civilian deaths and 254 civilian injuries – a 172 percent increase compared to the first quarter of 2020. There were, Guterres said, 21 attacks on medical facilities, ambulances and medical personnel – these were all committed by forces loyal to Haftar.

What is perplexing and especially alarming is how the U.S. and the UN have refused to publicly denounce Haftar.  A Libyan TV channel on Wednesday, showed footage of detention areas where Haftar opponents  were tortured by his militia in Tarhuna, not far from Tripoli. The TV clip showed extremely narrow prison-like cells where prisoners could barely sit and then only in a squatting position. So far, the footage has resulted in a major outcry with some likening the cells to “Nazi concentration camps” while others described them as “Libya’s Holocaust.”

On Tuesday, the International Criminal Court agreed to send an investigative team to look into Haftar’s militia crimes in Tarhuna. The UN also referred to the landmines planted by Haftar forces that have resulted in numerous deaths. Since April 2019, Haftar has launched numerous indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, schools, major airports, hospitals, and even the major university in Tripoli.

The bottom line is whether the U.S. and the UNSC will finally formally condemn Haftar and his militias for the heinous war crimes committed. The GNA headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has already made it clear that going forward Haftar can’t be trusted and that any negotiations will not include him. Haftar violated every single ceasefire agreement he previously agreed to including the most crucial at the Berlin Conference. It remains to be seen what the action the U.S. and the UN plan to take where Haftar is concerned. One thing is for certain: If Haftar is not reigned in sooner rather than later, all hell is certain to break loose.

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