Haftar agrees to Libya ceasefire call after Turkey-backed GNA takes key town

(Recasts with Cairo announcement of proposed Libyan ceasefire and political initiative)

Libya’s eastern forces commander Khalifa Haftar accepted a ceasefire agreement and a new political initiative by his Egyptian ally to end the year-long offensive his forces launched to seize Libya’s capital Tripoli, Reuters reported on Saturday.

The announcement came as Turkish-backed forces allied with the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) captured Terhune, a key town located 72 kilometres southeast of Tripoli that served as a stronghold for Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) during its offensive to capture Tripoli from the GNA.

Appearing at a press conference in Cairo alongside Haftar and Aguila Saleh, the head of the eastern Libyan parliament, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi proposed a ceasefire from Monday and a longer-term peace plan, Reuters said, adding that the United Arab Emirates, another LNA ally, supported the announcement.

Sisi said Haftar agreed to the new political initiative, which includes talks in Geneva, the election of a leadership council, the disbanding of militias and the exit of all foreign fighters from Libya.

Reuters analysts say the proposed plan could dilute Haftar’s power in his territory and may “demonstrate the impatience of his foreign backers.”

“In brief comments, Haftar said he hoped Sisi could make ‘urgent and effective efforts to compel Turkey to completely stop the transfer of weapons and mercenaries to Libya,’” the agency said.

Analysts say Turkey’s contributions were vital in helping the GNA seize the al-Watiya airbase last Monday, as Turkish drones and artillery had pounded the base for weeks before LNA forces retreated. Turkey has also flown in thousands of fighters from allied militias in Syria to aid in the Libyan struggle.

Reuters cited Khaled al-Meshri, head of the GNA-aligned legislative assembly, as rejecting “Haftar’s attempt to return to negotiations after military defeat.”

Meshri’s statement echoed the GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who on Thursday said there would be no negotiations with the LNA, following a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said on Saturday that the GNA had vowed to press ahead with its counter-offensive following its gains in Terhune. 

"Our next targets are Sirte, al-Jufra (air base) and the oil fields located in the south of the country," Anadolu quoted the GNA’s army spokesman Mustafa El-Mecai as saying. 

LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mosmari stated at a press conference late Friday that their fighters had withdrawn from Terhune, a key town in western Libya, after facing intense Turkish bombardment, the Associated Press said.

Mosmari framed the retreat as a strategic decision to keep heavy fighting outside the city’s populated civilian districts, but vowed that “the battles are not finished, they will continue.”

The fall of the town is the latest in a string of victories for the GNA over Haftar’s LNA – which is backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, among others – and another illustration of how Turkey’s support for the UN-recognised and Tripoli-based government has turned the tide of Libya’s conflict. 

Turkey stepped up its military support for the GNA’s forces in December 2019, sending drones and other military hardware, along with thousands of Syrian mercenaries, many of whom have links to militant groups. This has helped the Tripoli forces to take back almost all the territories around the Libyan capital that Haftar’s forces had previously captured, AP said.

On Thursday, the GNA said they regained control of all of Tripoli’s entrance and exit points, and on Wednesday they said they had retaken Tripoli airport. Last month, GNA-aligned forces – backed by Turkish firepower – recaptured the major al-Watiya base and ousted Haftar’s forces from Asaba, a key town south of Tripoli.

United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric had said on Friday that the U.N. was concerned about the impact of the ongoing violence on civilians, as well as possible further civilian displacements.

“The mission calls on all the parties to deescalate, to curb incitement and the use of hate speech,” Dujarric said. “I think it’s important to remind the parties of their responsibilities to abide by international human rights law, international humanitarian law.”

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) announced last week that rival parties involved in the Libyan conflict have agreed to return to permanent ceasefire talks, but the agreement has been tempered by the ongoing fighting and mobilisation by both Turkish- and Russian-backed sides. 

Libya has been without a central government since the dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, with towns and cities controlled by factions fighting for rival governments in the east and west since 2014.

Amnesty International said both sides have likely committed war crimes in the latest fighting around Tripoli, and that it obtained new evidence indicating “that war crimes and other violations may have been committed” since mid-April, “including, looting, indiscriminate attacks, and the planting of anti-personnel land mines in civilian buildings.”

“Civilians in Libya are once again paying the price,” said Amnesty’s regional director, Diana Eltahawy, adding that all parties in the fighting are “showing utter disregard for the laws of war and lives of civilians.”