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Cairo, Khartoum discuss end to proxy fighting in Libya in bilateral meeting

Egypt’s defense minister concluded a meeting on security cooperation with his Sudanese counterpart in Khartoum on Sunday, with sources close to the talks saying that Libya was slated to be the primary focus of the meeting.

The talks took place over two days, with Egypt’s Defense Minister Mohamed Zaki and Sudanese Defense Minister Awad Ibn Auf and President Omar al-Bashir meeting late Saturday night. According to statement issued from the Sudanese Defense Ministry, both sides agreed to tighten “coordination on border control to prevent transnational crime, counter-terrorism and illegal migration.”

On Sunday, the countries’ defense ministers agreed to conduct joint patrols on the border and boost intelligence cooperation, according to comments made by Sudan’s chief of staff Jamal Abdul Maarof to the media.

Sources familiar with the scope of the talks, however, tell Mada Masr that the security situation in Libya was meant to be the focal point of the meeting between military figures of the two countries. The sources add that this week’s visit will lay the groundwork for a high-profile November 29 meeting in the troubled North African state, which will bring together representatives from Libya’s neighbors, the United Nations, the European Union and a French delegation that will participate in an observatory role.

Ending proxy war

A Sudanese military source familiar with the arrangements surrounding Zaki’s visit to Sudan tells Mada Masr that the two ministers of defense would discuss how to bring an end to the proxy war between Khartoum and Cairo in Libya in their Sunday meeting.

Khartoum wants to reach an agreement with Egypt on several security issues related to the military presence of the two states in Libya, alongside that of Darfur rebels and other Islamist Libyan groups, according to the source.

“The two countries are exchanging accusations over their respective support of rebels in Libya,” says the source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. “Khartoum has accused Egypt of supporting the presence of Darfur rebels in Libya, while Cairo believes that Sudan is supporting the Islamic groups fighting against Khalifa Haftar’s forces.”

The Kufra region of southeastern Libya, which includes the area covered by the Libyan-Sudan-Chad triangle, is a hotbed for proxy militias from Libya’s neighbors and tribal conflict. Sudanese and Chadian armed groups have been in southern Libya since at least 2013. Some of these militias support the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) — a mix of military units and tribal or regional-based armed groups stylized as an “anti-Islamist” force and nominally fighting under Khalifa Haftar — while others support its rivals based in Misrata, nominally loyal to the internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

According to an April 2018 report by Washington DC-based think tank Jamestown, the Sudanese groups known to be fighting in the south of Libya are all from Darfur, and include the Justice and Equality Movement, the Sudan Liberation Movement – Unity and the Sudan Liberation Army. The latter two attempted to return to Darfur in 2017 but were defeated by units of the Sudan Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

The effects of the proxy fighting in Libya between Egypt and Sudan became public in mid-July, when an Egyptian unit deployed on the Libyan side of the border to gather intel on Sudanese military activity with armed Libyan groups accidentally drove into the Sudanese side of the border. There, Egyptian forces encountered a Chadian militia who kidnapped them, a Libyan National Army intelligence officer told Mada Masr at the time.

Sudanese forces discovered the operation and subsequently freed the Egyptian soldiers, in what the source described as a “blow” for Cairo.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited Sudan in a hastened meeting shortly after the soldiers were captured in mid-July, according to an Egyptian diplomat, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. According to the source, the visit was held earlier than originally planned, after Bashir insisted on conducting direct negotiations over the captured soldiers with Sisi in Khartoum.

The Egyptian-Sudanese visit follows a Friday attack on a police station in the southeastern Libyan city of Tazerbo, which was claimed by the Islamic State on Saturday night.

The hospital director in Tazerbo tells Mada Masr that nine people were killed in the attack and nine others were injured. According to Reuters, the militants also kidnapped several policemen and civilians.

The LNA sent reinforcements to the region, according to information released by the Kufra military operations room. Clashes between the LNA and what are reportedly Islamic State fighters outside Tazerbo are now in their third day. Twenty-three militants have reportedly been killed in the fighting.

A Libyan military source close to the LNA’s General Command tells Mada Masr that the Egypt-Sudan-Libya border region is also the site of a major smuggling route for weapons and militants, including Islamic State fighters.

Seeking guarantees

Alongside the meeting with Zaki, Sudanese diplomats are exerting huge efforts to convince regional and international players to participate in the meeting planned for the end of the month, according to a Sudanese diplomat.

The diplomat, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that Khartoum, which has played a major role in peace talks regarding civil conflicts in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, wants also to go further in breaking its international isolation by making positive strides in stabilizing Libya.

“Khartoum invited the Egyptian minister of defense because it wants to guarantee consensus with Egypt before the meeting. And the military and security situation will be a key point in the coming talks,” the diplomat says.

Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the University of Paris 8, whose work is focused on the international dynamics of the Libyan conflict, previously described Sudan’s Libya policy as one that is opposed to the Egypt-LNA alliance but intent on garnering international legitimacy.

“Since 2015, there have been really two faces to Sudan. One is pro-Tripoli, pro-Misrata, against Haftar and — importantly — against Egypt, owing to ideological, territorial and water disputes. There exists, also, another aspect to Sudan, which is shrewd and pragmatic, looking to build respectability on the international scene,” Harchaoui explained.

Egyptian-Sudanese relations have been beset by tension since last year, primarily due to Egypt’s hosting of Sudanese opposition figures, Sudan’s lack of support to Egypt in the negotiations over the Grand Renaissance Ethiopian Dam and the fight over the Halayeb Triangle territory between the two countries. These tensions led to Sudan recalling its ambassador from Cairo in January, a decision that was retracted two months later.

However, there has been increasing cooperation between the two countries in recent months, most notably with a quid pro quo arrangement between Khartoum and Cairo under which Sudanese political opponents in Egypt were sought in return for a crackdown on members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan. The most recent known incident involved Mohamed Hassan “Boshi” Aalim, a member of the Sudanese Baath Party and vocal critic of the Sudanese government who disappeared from his Cairo residence in early October.

Boshi’s mother, who lives in Sudan, told Mada Masr in mid-November that she has not heard from her son since October 10. His roommates told her that this was the day that five national security personnel arrested Hassan in his home at around 9 pm. On October 15, she spoke with Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS),  who told her that Boshi was in their custody and asked her to bring clothes for him. Although intelligence officials received the clothes she delivered that same day, they denied her request to see her son.

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