Libya rivals start UN-led talks in Tunisia on political deal

FILE - In this Oct. 21, 2020 file photo, Stephanie Williams, Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, speaks about the fourth round of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission, during a press conference at the European headquarters of the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland. On Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, Libya’s rival factions began much-awaited political peace talks in Tunisia’s capital brokered by the United Nations, with a goal of drawing a roadmap to presidential and parliamentary elections. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP, File)

GAMMARTH, Tunisia — The U.N chief called on Libya’s warring sides to work together on a path to peace, as the rival factions gathered Monday in Tunisia for the start of much-awaited talks brokered by the United Nations, with a goal of drawing a roadmap to presidential and parliamentary elections.

The gathering is the latest in efforts to end the political chaos that engulfed the North African nation after the 2011 overthrow and killing of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The U.N. had selected 75 delegates from Libya to take part in the six-day forum at a luxury hotel in the Mediterranean town of Gammarth, just outside the capital of Tunis.

Tunisian President Kais Said attended the talks’ opening ceremony, calling the forum “historic by all measures.” Said added the U.N. efforts aim to set “clear measures and specific dates” to reach “a peaceful solution” to Libya’s conflict.

Said called on those who will lead the transitional period to refrain from running in the next presidential or parliamentary elections.

“There is no room for dividing Libya. Some talk about East and West, but the Libyan people are one,” he said. “The solution is for the Libyan people to regain their full sovereignty.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the gathering the future of the country is in their hands.

“Now it’s your turn to shape the future of your country. Your commitment to this process will help restore Libyan sovereignty and democratic legitimacy of Libyan institutions,” he said in a pre-recorded message to the forum.

He urged the international community to support the talks and ensure “full adherence” the U.N. arms embargo on Libya.

Stephanie Williams, the top U.N. official in Libya, sought to temper expectations from the Gammarth talks. These negotiations “will not resolve all of Libya’s problems, but if we fail to solve any of them, future resolution becomes impossible,” she said.

A new government, expected to be created by the ongoing U.N.-brokered talks, would “launch national reconciliation, combat corruption, and restore public services,” Williams added.

Just ahead of the talks, she told journalists that “Libya now has an excellent opportunity which will allow it to get out of the conflict tunnel if all the interlocutors assume their responsibilities and respect their commitments at the end of this dialogue.”

But previous diplomatic initiatives to end the conflict have repeatedly collapsed. These latest talks, however, came amid heavy international pressure. Warring sides agreed to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire agreement last month in Geneva.

Pope Francis on Sunday asked for prayers for the forum’s delegates and for peace and stability in Libya.

“Given the importance of the event, I strongly hope that in this moment so delicate a solution is found for the long suffering of the Libyan people, and that the recent agreement for a permanent cease-fire is respected and is realized,” Francis told the faithful in St. Peter’s Square.

Oil-rich Libya is now split between a U.N.-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the east. Those sides are backed by an array of local militias, as well as regional and foreign powers.

Eastern Libya forces, led by commander Khalifa Hifter, launched an offensive in April 2019 to try and capture Tripoli. His campaign collapsed in June, when the Tripoli-allied militias, with heavy Turkish support, gained the upper hand.