UN envoy says push continues toward cease-fire deal in Libya

CAIRO (AP) — The U.N.’s special representative for Libya said Thursday the country’s warring sides are working to turn a provisional cease-fire into a formal agreement as they emerged from four days of talks, a prospect that appears to face steep obstacles.

Ghassan Salame, head of the United Nations support mission in Libya, said rival military leaders are negotiating the remaining sticking points in a cease-fire deal.

Those include the return of internally displaced people, the disarmament of armed groups and ways to monitor a truce, which each side has accused the other of violating. He said the cease-fire would be monitored by the military representatives in Geneva with support from the U.N. Mission in Libya.

Another unresolved issue, he said, is how to deal with heavy weaponry, which powerful foreign backers continue sending to Libya, despite their pledges not to at a high-profile summit last month in Berlin.

“There are still two or three points of divergence,” Salame told reporters in Geneva.

He said delegates will reconvene Friday to discuss the latest draft. That agreement must then be sent back to their respective leaders for approval.

The latest round of fighting erupted last April when eastern-based forces under the command of Khalifa Hifter laid siege to Tripoli in a bid to wrest power from the U.N.-backed government led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj.

Sarraj and Hifter both sent delegations of military officials to represent them at the Geneva talks.

Yet even as the delegates conferred, the suburbs of Libya’s capital came under heavy fire, health authorities said, which killed at least four civilians in the last 24 hours.

A 15-year-old boy struck by a shell last week died from his wounds late Wednesday, pushing the toll to at least five.

“I’ve noticed more strikes this week, and the victims have been civilians” said Assad Jaafar, a spokesman for Libya’s Red Crescent based in Tripoli.

The uptick of violence comes amid intensified diplomacy among world powers seeking to end the conflict that has ravaged Libya for nine years.

The U.N. Security Council in New York met this week to discuss a draft resolution to uphold the widely flouted arms embargo. And Algeria’s foreign minister visited Hifter and tribal leaders Wednesday to present a still opaque, African Union-backed alternative to European efforts.

Libya’s fate lies in the hands of foreign powers, which have conflicting interests in the oil-rich country and are reluctant to make concessions.

Hifter’s forces, which control much of Libya’s east and south, 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 prop up the embattled Tripoli-based government. In the latest twist, Turkey has deployed Syrian fighters affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State to the Libyan battlefield.

Current cease-fire talks, meant to pave the way for negotiations “have yielded a violent political process instead of quiet," said Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, offering diplomatic cover to Hifter's forces as they embark on a military offensive.

Rival Libyan leaders and their foreign backers “are using military tools to put pressure on talks, and are making civilians into bargaining chips,” he said.

Two civilians were killed and four were wounded early Thursday when they were struck by errant shells, according to Health Ministry media advisor Amin al-Hashem. Another two were killed in a similar attack by Hifter's forces the day before, he said. Artillery rounds crashed into the bustling center of Tripoli University on Wednesday, causing panic among students but no casualties.

The U.N. deputy spokesman in New York, Farhan Haq, raised alarm over recent civilian causalities in the capital. He also said ongoing fighting around the key coastal city of Sirte has forced over 2,000 people to flee.

In a separate incident, six people, including one Libyan citizen, were killed when a pick-up truck packed with smuggled migrants crashed into a fuel tanker in the southwest, the U.N. migration agency said Thursday. The war has turned Libya, which sits on Africa’s Mediterranean coast, into a major conduit for Europe-bound migrants.

Salame said an “economic track” of the diplomatic process will resume in Cairo on Sunday and seek to address a standoff over oil production in the country. For weeks, tribes loyal to Hifter have choked off virtually all of the country's oil exports, jeopardizing the already battered Libyan economy to gain political leverage.

On Thursday, the country's National Oil Corporation warned that with oil production falling to the lowest point since war convulsed the country in 2011, Libya's "power and clean water supply could be severely affected in the coming weeks.”


Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.