Rebel group the Libyan National Army (LNA) says it bombed a vessel carrying weapons from Turkey in Tripoli’s port, an attack that led the UN-recognised government to call off peace negotiations in Switzerland.
The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) pulled out of the talks after a barrage of rocket fire on Tuesday hit the key port in Libya’s capital, the takeover of which has been the goal of a months-long operation by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar and his LNA.
Turkish security officials told media on Wednesday there were no Turkish cargo ships in the port at the time of the attack.
Libyans in the capital were expressing “panic, fear, and frustration” as the situation deteriorates.
“People are worried that heavy fighting might renew at any time. People in densely populated areas, they are worried that the attack on the port could be the beginning of other attacks in residential areas,” he said.
Oil-rich Libya has been splintered between competing factions and militias since former leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed during a NATO-supported uprising in 2011.
It is currently split between two rival administrations – the Tripoli-based GNA and another allied with Haftar in the eastern city of Tobruk that controls key oil fields and export terminals. Each administration is backed by an array of foreign countries.
Libya’s unity government announced late Tuesday it would halt its participation in UN talks aimed at brokering a lasting ceasefire in the war-torn country where a fragile truce has been repeatedly violated.
“We are announcing the suspension of our participation in the military talks taking place in Geneva until firm positions are adopted against the aggressor [Haftar] and his violations” of the truce, the GNA said in a press release.
“Without a lasting ceasefire … negotiations make no sense. There can be no peace under the bombing.”
Diplomats involved in the peace talks reacted with dismay to the attack by Haftar’s forces.
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia called the rocket barrage and GNA talks withdrawal “sad”.
“They were just starting to engage, particularly the military committees, which is key for the ceasefire,” he said.
Germany’s UN Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said he hoped the negotiations would resume “as quickly as possible”.
The port attacks were the latest violation of a tenuous truce that came into effect in January.
Turkey, which supports the GNA, recently sent soldiers and military equipment to Libya. To a lesser degree, the Tripoli government is also backed by Qatar and Italy, as well as local militias.
Haftar’s army is supported by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia.
“It is clear the objective of the systematic bombardments of the residential areas, the airport and the port, in addition to the total blockage of the oil installations, is to provoke crises for the citizens in all the aspects of their life”, the GNA said.
It added Haftar’s forces were “trying in vain” to destabilise the state, having failed to seize power.
UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame launched the second round of talks on Tuesday in the latest international effort to end fighting between the warring sides, with five senior officers from the GNA and five appointed by Haftar’s LNA taking part.
A first round of talks ended with no result earlier this month but Salame said there was “more hope” this time, mainly because of the approval of a UN Security Council resolution calling for a “lasting ceasefire”.
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Haftar launched his offensive on Tripoli last April but after rapid advances, his forces stalled on the edges of the capital. The fighting has left more than 1,000 people dead and displaced some 140,000, according to the United Nations.
Further talks on finding a political solution were planned to start in Geneva on February 26.
World leaders had agreed at a Berlin summit last month to end all foreign meddling in the conflict and stop the flow of weapons but little has changed on the ground since then.
EU foreign ministers agreed on Monday to launch a naval mission to enforce an arms embargo, which the UN said was being violated by air, land and sea. The naval operation will be authorised to intervene to stop weapons shipments into the North African state.