Libya’s rival sides have reached an initial agreement on the withdrawal of foreign fighters and mercenaries from the North African nation, the United Nations says, a key step towards restoring calm to the violence-wracked country.
The issue of the mercenaries and foreign fighters has long been an obstacle ahead of Libya’s landmark general elections due in December.
The nation has been engulfed in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The oil-rich country has since been split between rival governments in the capital, Tripoli, and the eastern part of the country. Each side is backed by different foreign powers and militia groups.
The UN mission mediating between the rivals said a 10-member joint military commission, with five representatives from each side, inked a “gradual and balanced” withdrawal deal on Friday, at the end of three-day, UN-facilitated talks in the Swiss city of Geneva.
The plan will be “the cornerstone for the gradual, balanced, and sequenced process of withdrawal” of the mercenaries and foreign forces.
Jan Kubis, the UN special envoy for Libya, welcomed the move as “another breakthrough achievement”.
Libya’s split came to the forefront in 2019, when self-styled military commander Khalifa Hifter, allied with the east-based administration, launched an offensive to take Tripoli from armed militias loosely allied with the UN-supported but weak government in the country’s capital.
Hifter was backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France, but his 14-month campaign and march on Tripoli ultimately failed in June 2020, after Turkey sent troops to help the UN-supported administration, which also had the backing of Qatar and Italy.
Subsequent UN-sponsored peace talks brought about a ceasefire last October and installed an interim government that is expected to lead the country into the December elections.
The ceasefire deal included the planned departure of foreign forces and mercenaries within three months – something that was never implemented.
After signing the Geneva deal, the rival sides said they would go back and communicate with their base and concerned international parties “to support the implementation of this plan and the respect of Libya’s sovereignty”.
In December, then UN acting envoy for Libya Stephanie Williams estimated there have been at least 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya over the past few years, including Russians, Syrians, Sudanese, and Chadians.