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Palermo conference: Haftar invited to Tripoli, plan for 2nd Italian conference to discuss 2019 Libyan elections

After repeated attempts to enter Tripoli via military force, Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar left the Palermo conference this morning with an invitation in hand to visit the Libyan capital nominally controlled by the rival Government of National Accord (GNA).

GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj extended an invitation to Haftar before a security working session planned for Tuesday morning, but the head of the LNA, a major political and military ally of Egypt, declined to give an immediate answer, according to a source close to Haftar participating in the two-day conference being held in Palermo.

The visit would be an unprecedented development in the Libyan conflict that began in 2014, when Haftar launched a military campaign called Operation Dignity in Benghazi against rival Islamist forces that coalesced into what became known as Libyan Dawn, fracturing the country into constellations of militias and political actors.

The invitation caps a day of fireworks — including the Turkish vice president’s decision to pull out of the event midway through talks — at a conference that was largely nebulous in the weeks leading up to its November 11 start date. However, the content of the talks failed to produce much of a change in the status quo, and the communiqué issued at the end of the conference largely reiterated the terms of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, which set a roadmap to end the civil war and produce a unified government.

Despite the lack of headway from the conference, a diplomatic source tells Mada Masr that there are already talks under way for another conference in Italy in which the United Nations Support Mission in Libya head Ghassan Salamé will try to set a timetable for long-discussed elections to take place in 2019.

Talks at the Palermo conference were divided into separate working sessions focused on security arrangements headed by GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, economic reform chaired by Deputy UN Envoy to Libya Stephanie William, and the political situation in Libya chaired by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, in addition to an international security working session that took place Tuesday morning and a general international conference, which Haftar refrained from attending, that took place Tuesday afternoon.

Haftar arrived in Palermo on November 12, though it had initially been unclear whether he would attend.

A diplomatic source close to Haftar tells Mada Masr that a high level Italian envoy visited Benghazi on Sunday in the midst of Haftar’s reticence. Despite reports that Conte was part of the delegation, the source was unable to confirm the Italian prime minister’s attendance.

According to a high-ranking Italian diplomatic source who was in touch with Libyan officials in Benghazi and Tripoli, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi played a pivotal role in convincing Haftar to attend the conference that has been framed as Italy’s response to the May Paris Conference amid the two countries competition for influence in Libya’s tumultuous political scene, has been in the works for months and has been largely kept under wraps. The final agenda only emerged days beforehand.

Haftar left Palermo shortly after the security working session, according to the source participating in the conference, to travel to another Italian city. The LNA chief’s departure came just before the politics working session chaired by Conte. According to the source, Hafar’s refusal to attend the political working session is a sign that he will not commit to any of its outcomes, including any discussions of elections.

Haftar was also at the center of another major development at the Italian conference before his departure.

The source close to the LNA chief participating in the conference tells Mada Masr that the Vice President of Turkey Fuat Oktay and the Qatari delegation were prevented from entering the international security meeting at the request of Haftar’s political advisors, which led to Turkey’s decision to pull out of the conference altogether.

Oktay issued a statement later in the day, a copy of which Mada Masr obtained, condemning Turkey’s “exclusion” from an “informal meeting held this morning with a number of players and having them presented as the prominent protagonists of the Mediterranean.”

This morning security working session was meant to include leaders and foreign ministers of several countries, including Egypt, Russia, Tunisia, Algeria, France, Qatar, Sudan, Morocco and Turkey.

However, the source close to Haftar participating in the conference tells Mada Masr that the Vice President of Turkey and the Qatari delegation were prevented from entering the security meeting at the request of Haftar’s political advisors, which led to Turkey’s decision to pull out of the conference altogether.

The communiqué, a copy of which was obtained by Mada Masr, was issued at the close of the conference. It was signed by the Presidential Council of the GNA, the House of Representatives, the High Council of State, the LNA and representatives of over two dozen countries, as well as European Union, the Arab League, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations.

The communiqué reaffirms the signatories’ “strong and unequivocal commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Libya,” stressing that the current political and security situation is unsustainable and that there is no room for a military solution in Libya. The document also presented the the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement signed in Skhirat, Morocco, as the only existing framework that can provide a comprehensive and sustainable course for the stabilization of Libya.

A diplomatic source close to the GNA tells Mada Masr that Salamé did not expect there to be many outcomes from the Palermo conference, so he planned for another to take place in Italy at the end of November. According to the source, Salamé plans to use the second conference to push for Libyan elections to take place between March and July 2019.

The GNA diplomatic source, who met the mission head on the sidelines of the Palermo conference, tells Mada Masr that the UNSML head also intends to convene a National Forum meeting in January 2019 to gather opinions from Libyans on whether to call for parliamentary or presidential elections. The source adds that Salamé is considering relying on the outcomes of the meeting as a way bypass the House of Representatives, which he believes to have obstructed presidential elections.

The timeline for elections was initially set in the May Paris Agreement, where Haftar, Sarraj, the head of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives Aguila Saleh and the head of the Tripoli-based High Council of State Khaled al-Mishri met with French President Emmanuel Macron and verbally agreed to elections on December 10. However, the prospect of elections has always been far-fetched, with the UN envoy to Libya telling AFP in a September interview, “There is still a lot to do. It may not be possible to respect the date of December 10.”

This sentiment was corroborated by Western diplomats, who told Reuters  in the lead-up to Palmero that the UN and Western nations have given up hope that Libya will hold elections in the immediate future.

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