MOSCOW: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (right) shakes hands with Khalifa Hifter, the head of the self-styled Libyan National Army, prior to talks on Monday.—AP
MOSCOW: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (right) shakes hands with Khalifa Hifter, the head of the self-styled Libyan National Army, prior to talks on Monday.—AP

MOSCOW: Libya’s eastern strongman General Khalifa Haftar delayed signing a ceasefire agreement on Monday at talks in Moscow, but Russia’s government said it was hopeful the country’s warring rivals would soon conclude the deal to end nine months of fighting.

Talks on the terms of a ceasefire between Haftar’s forces and the UN-recognised government headed by Fayez al-Sarraj went on for seven hours without the two delegations actually meeting, though Moscow noted “certain progress”.

Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli has been under attack since last April from forces loyal to Haftar, who is based in the east of the country along with his loyalist politicians.

The two sides were expected to agree the terms of a ceasefire that took effect over the weekend, raising hopes of an end to the latest fighting to wrack the oil-rich North African country since a 2011 Nato-backed uprising killed longtime dictator Moamer Qadhafi.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Sarraj and the head of High Council of State in Tripoli, Khaled al-Mechri, have signed the document, but Haftar and his ally Aguila Saleh “have asked for a bit more time until morning” to study it.

Turkey and Russia’s foreign and defence ministers acted as mediators, but the rival delegations did not apparently meet face-to-face.

“We have refused any meeting with Haftar,” al-Mechri was quoted as saying by Libya al-Ahrar television channel.

The ceasefire initiative was launched by President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who jointly called for a truce in Istanbul last week.

A fragile ceasefire went into effect from midnight on Sunday, but Erdogan on Monday reiterated the “urgent necessity” for a permanent agreement after meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Putin on Saturday and he supported her drive to hold a peace conference sponsored by the United Nations. Berlin said the summit was planned for later this month.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday called for a “credible, lasting and verifiable” truce.

Western powers are keen to stabilise Libya — home to Africa’s largest proven crude reserves — because of concerns Islamist militants and migrant smugglers, already active, will take advantage of the chaos.

Sarraj on Monday called on Libyans to “turn the page on the past, reject discord and to close ranks to move towards stability and peace”.

Since the start of Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli, more than 280 civilians and about 2,000 fighters have been killed and 146,000 Libyans have been displaced, according to the United Nations.

Turkey and Russia’s diplomatic initiative came despite the countries being seen as supporting opposing sides.

Ankara dispatched troops — in a training capacity, it said — to support the GNA in January in a move criticised by European powers and US President Donald Trump.

The GNA has also signed agreements with Ankara assigning Turkey rights over a vast area of the eastern Mediterranean, in a deal denounced by France, Greece, Egypt and Cyprus.Russia has been accused of backing pro-Haftar forces, which are supported by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — all regional rivals of Turkey.

Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2020