Tripoli, Libya – As the latest United Nations-brokered peace talks between Libya’s warring factions convened in Skhirat, Morocco, fierce fighting broke out on the weekend between militias in Tajoura, 30km east of Tripoli, killing over 21 people and wounding scores more.
The battle raged all day on Friday with heavy gunfire and air strikes after fighters loyal to the Tripoli-based government and its Libya Dawn military alliance – which took control of the capital in August last year – attacked a local militia reporting to General Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity forces and the exiled government in eastern Libya.
“Haftar has no base here in Tripoli and he cannot come through it,” said Jamal Naji Zubia, the head of Tripoli’s foreign media department. “We will never let him through.”
Tripoli remains on tense footing, with contentious neighbourhoods such as Fashloom cordoned off, and checkpoints clogging the coastal road that runs west to Misrata. “We woke up to loud explosions,” said Mohammed, a Tajoura resident and father of four, who lives close to where the heaviest clashes took place. “How can people have talks for peace when others are killing each other? You have to stop the fighting, and then you might be able to talk.”
Delegates from the two warring sides presented their feedback to UN envoy Bernardino Leon in Morocco on a six-point plan, introduced on March 24, to form a unity government in Libya. Now the UN is trying to cobble together their disparate suggestions into a third draft.
On Wednesday morning, an air strike at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport coincided with the start of this latest round of peace negotiations, which Leon warned would be the last.
“I really hope that the negotiators … are understanding that we cannot wait any more and this really will be the final round,” Leon said.
The UN talks started in September 2014 in Libya’s desert town of Ghadames, reconvening in Geneva and then Morocco, while Libyan activists, politicians, tribal leaders, and militia leaders have met separately throughout the process. Fighting continues over key cities and assets, such as lucrative oil fields and military bases.
The country is split between the exiled internationally recognised government, the House of Representatives (HOR), led by Abdullah al-Thinni in Tobruk and Beida and backed by Egypt and the UAE, and the Tripoli-based General National Council (GNC), supported by Turkey and Qatar, and headed by caretaker Prime Minister Khalifa Ghweil after last month’s removal of Omar al-Hassi.
In November, Libya’s Supreme Court cancelled the outcome of elections that brought the HOR to office, essentially voiding its legal mandate. The GNC was reinstalled in Tripoli by Libya Dawn, after being in power prior to the last elections.
Fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have exploited Libya’s chaos to assert their presence and attack both warring sides. ISIL fighters are currently in a standoff with Misratan militias, recently withdrawn from the frontline along Libya’s central oil fields, around the coastal city of Sirte.
“No one can win this war, Libyans have to know this. So they need to stop this bloodshed,” Fathi Bashaagha, a prominent Misratan businessman participating in the talks, told Al Jazeera. “Haftar’s so-called war against terrorism has only brought more war and destruction to the country. The national unity government will be agreed upon by both sides and will receive its mandate accordingly.”
A lot of them are fighting for regional objectives, their identity and the economic sustainability of their own region and their own people, so unless you provide crucial answers to them, they won’t drop their weapons.
Anas el-Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute
Up for debate is an agreed-upon institutional structure, its governing powers, and the proposed names of those who would take power. Sticking points include the legitimacy of each side, a unity government and how to stop the ongoing fighting on the ground.
Another challenge to the process came through Haftar’s remarks in a television interview in Jordan this week. If the UN talks fail, he said, “then the military solution is a must because it is decisive… When we are forced to, when we see our homeland torn apart as it is happening now, between militias and terrorists, we resort to a military solution. We are betting on the military solution”.
There has also been an attempt by the HOR to circumvent the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation (NOC), which manages Libya’s oil production, and the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), which disburses government funds, including salaries to militias on both sides of the conflict. The institutions are fighting to maintain neutrality in Libya’s power struggle.
Tobruk is using the 2011 revolution as a model, albeit in a different context, when the then-National Transitional Council (NTC) appropriated state oil production and revenues to fund and lend legitimacy to their fight. Despite a lack of infrastructure and technical capability, if successful, this could signal the demise of the current Libyan state.
“The various moves to try and prepare a separate sale channel is unsettling for the market,” said Richard Mallinson, an analyst with the UK advisory group Energy Aspects. “It becomes challenging for an oil trader to determine which is a legitimate seller. And if you are not confident in the title, you potentially risk getting caught up in legal issues, or sanctions, if the international community were to decide to try and target one side.
“The Thinni government doesn’t control all the oil terminals, and neither does the Libya Dawn government,” he added. “So the fight could break down to whoever controls the oil terminals, can sell the oil.”
Libya’s oil production is around 550,000 barrels per day, with no date set for key terminals Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, damaged by recent fighting, to be up and running. Over 400,000 Libyans are still displaced internally, according to the UN, and watchdog Libya Body Count recorded more than 2,800 violent deaths last year.
With most international companies, non-governmental organisations and embassies now shuttered, this has exacerbated the isolation and pessimism Libyans now feel amid grinding daily violence, severe cash shortages and an uncertain future.
“In Tobruk, the hardliners are winning. But in Tripoli they are more realistic; they understand the wind is blowing against them, and they have to come to an agreement with Tobruk,” said one European diplomat close to the UN talks. “My impression is that Bernardino Leon will be engaged in very difficult negotiations, and I do not believe they will come to an agreement on the institutional framework by the end of the week,” he said, underlining the gap between the militias and the reality on the ground, and those in the dialogue.
The international community, and an increasingly vocal Italy and France, are extremely concerned with the growing threat from ISIL, the dramatic increase of migrants arriving from Libyan shores, a loss of oil resources and an increasingly volatile Libya.
Abdul Menham, 30, who supervises workers at Libya’s historic Central Bank and is part of a Tripoli brigade that fought against former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, said his men last collected their monthly salaries of 600 Libyan dinars ($433) four months ago.
“Security is our main priority,” Menham told Al Jazeera. “We will support a unity government, because we hope that what happened in Benghazi doesn’t happen here.”
But Anas el-Gomati, director of Libyan think-tank the Sadeq Institute, believes the UN has not offered Libya’s fighting forces a real incentive to stop fighting.
“They have a lot to fight for and a lot to lose,” he said. “A lot of them are fighting for regional objectives, their identity and the economic sustainability of their own region and their own people, so unless you provide crucial answers to them, they won’t drop their weapons – because dropping their weapons is dropping their fight, and their fight is not for Libya Dawn or Libya Dignity.”
By Rebecca Murray and Hassan Morajea.