GENEVA – The U.N.-supported government in Libya said Tuesday it would suspend its participation in talks in Geneva aimed at salvaging a fragile cease-fire in the North African country following an attack on Tripoli’s strategic port.
It appeared to be the first such attack on Tripoli’s port since Libyan forces loyal to military commander Khalifa Hifter began their siege of the city almost a year ago.
The National Oil Corporation said projectiles struck meters away from a highly explosive liquefied petroleum gas tanker discharging in the port, prompting it to evacuate fuel vessels from the area and cancel offloading operations.
A statement from Libya’s U.N.-backed government said it would not take part in the talks until world powers take “firm positions”against Hifter and “the countries that support him.”
Mustafa Sanalla, head of the NOC, warned that the city of Tripoli doesn’t have operational fuel storage facilities because the capital’s main storage warehouse was evacuated as a result of the fighting.
“The consequences will be immediate: Hospitals, schools, power stations and other vital services will be disrupted,” he said in a statement.
Ghassan Salame, the head of the U.N. support mission in Libya, called the port attack a “big breach” of the cease-fire.
Footage shared online show thick black smoke rising from the dock areas of Tripoli, supposedly from the shelling.
Oil-rich Libya is split between rival governments based in its east and west, each backed by an array of foreign countries apparently jockeying for influence in order to control Libya’s resources.
The current cease-fire was brokered by Russia and Turkey on Jan. 12. But both sides have repeatedly violated the truce, which was supposed to deescalate the fight for control of the Libyan capital.
“We hope to be able in this second round to come to some kind of consensus about what a lasting cease-fire could look like in Libya,” Salame told reporters in Geneva.
Western Libyan forces led by Hifter rely on military assistance from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia. On the other side, Turkey, Italy and Qatar back the U.N.-supported but weakened government that Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj leads in Tripoli.
Hifter’s forces said that they’d hit a depot for weapons and ammunition at the port on Tuesday “in order to weaken the combat capabilities of the mercenaries who arrived from Syria” to fight alongside Tripoli-based militias.
Turkish officials later in the day confirmed that Hifter’s forces had fired on a Turkish ship near the docks. Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters the attack “missed its target” and Turkish forces fired back.
Talks in Geneva, Benghazi
The U.N. support mission in Libya said five military representatives from each side have met indirectly Tuesday in Geneva, more than a week after they ended their first round of negotiations without striking a deal that would help end the fighting in Tripoli.
Salame said the talks would focus on stopping “the frequent violations of the truce,” as well as helping civilians displaced by the fighting return to the capital and its surrounding area.
He also said further talks on handling Libya’s suffering economy would take place in March. These will focus on “very sensitive issues,” including the fairer redistribution of state revenues across divided Libya, he said.
Salame also said that the two sides would hold political talks on Feb. 26 in Geneva.
Hifter meanwhile met on Tuesday with the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland in the eastern city of Benghazi, the embassy and Hifter’s office said.
It was the first visit for Norland to Libya since he was named the U.S. ambassador to the African country in August, the embassy officials said.
The U.S. envoy said Hifter stated his “commitment to a permanent cease-fire.”
Norland said he would visit Tripoli and meet with Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj “as soon as security conditions permit.”
Source: Voice of America