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Continued Libya Violence Undermines Peace Talks

  • Reuters

Bernardino Leon, right, the U.N. special envoy for a Libya, addresses Libyan political leaders and rivals in Algiers Tuesday. At left is Algeria's Minister of African and Maghreb Affairs, Abdelkader Messahel, March 10, 2015.

Bernardino Leon, right, the U.N. special envoy for a Libya, addresses Libyan political leaders and rivals in Algiers Tuesday. At left is Algeria's Minister of African and Maghreb Affairs, Abdelkader Messahel, March 10, 2015.

An attack by Islamist militants on a Libyan oilfield where they beheaded security guards and kidnapped foreign workers underlines the difficulties facing U.N.-sponsored peace talks due to resume this week.

Libyans have become accustomed to chaos, with their country split between two rival governments each allied to heavily armed groups that have been fighting for control of the oil-producing nation since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

But last week's attack on the al-Ghani oilfield in central Libya marks a new departure.

The attackers did not seize it to make financial or political demands as armed groups often do. Instead, they mounted a show of force that appeared in line with warnings that they are seeking to expand their influence.

“They came to burn the facilities and kidnap or kill the workers and guards,” said Ali al-Hassi, a spokesman for an oilfield security force. “Then they left.”

Officials blame IS

The militants have not yet made a statement on the attack, but officials have blamed the Islamic State group, which has in the past boasted of its ability to kill soldiers or civilians in Libya.

The U.N. special envoy for a Libya, Bernardino Leon, said last week that Islamic State militants would “stop at nothing” to strengthen their presence in the country.

The violence illustrates the challenge facing the United Nations, which on Wednesday plans to host a new round of talks between rival parties with the aim of forming a national unity government.

Libya is divided between the internationally recognized government, which has been based in the east since a faction called Libya Dawn seized the capital in August, reinstated the old assembly and set up a rival administration.

The U.N. has invited moderate leaders to join the talks, which have been going on since September. But analysts see little chance of success as the country is fracturing, with small armed groups increasingly calling the shots, as in the oilfield attack.

“There are too many players -- and the fighters don't necessarily answer to their respective leaderships,” Richard Cochrane, Senior Analyst, MENA, at consultancy IHS Country Risk, told the Reuters Global Oil Forum.

Alliances of rebel groups

Both governments represent loose alliances of former rebel groups who helped topple Gadhafi but have since fallen out along political and regional lines.

Libya Dawn draws support form from western cities such as Misrata, and includes Islamists, the Amazigh minority, and business people.

In the east, an umbrella of tribes, federalists campaigning for autonomy, and military figures such as Khalifa Haftar, a former Gadhafi general, dominate the scene.

Both sides have been fighting each other on several fronts, creating a vacuum exploited by militants loyal to Islamic State, the group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The militants have drawn support from Libyan jihadists who fought in Syria and returned to cities such as Derna or Sirte. While the Islamic State alliance seems to have split into small groups, it attracts fighters from other factions, such as Ansar al-Sharia, by conducting spectacular attacks.

A big problem for peace efforts is that neither the United Nations nor Western powers backing the talks have a presence in Libya -- they evacuated their Tripoli missions in the summer for security reasons.

Having relocated to Malta or Tunis, diplomats try to stay in contact with moderate Libyan figures by phone or when they travel abroad.

But with no team on the ground, U.N. envoy Leon often finds himself agreeing on something during a day trip to Tripoli or Tobruk only for hardliners to torpedo it the next day.

Most 'are against war'

Husni Bey, a prominent Libyan entrepreneur, blamed a few hardline figures for encouraging war. “Ninety-nine percent of us, the Libyan people, want peace and are against war, death, injury and destruction,” he said

In the east, Haftar has emerged as a new strongman, fighting his own war against Islamist militants and using his warplanes to attack civilian airports under the control of Libya Dawn, which has also carried out air strikes and tried to seize major oil ports with troops.

But his recent promotion to army commander in the east has had the effect of helping Libya Dawn in Tripoli to become more united, analysts say. And while business leaders on that side had been pushing for a quick deal, Haftar's elevation is as unacceptable for them as it is for hardliners.

“I think talks and fighting will run as parallel tracks for some time, as happened in Somalia where years passed between a first national unity government and a modicum of stabilization,” Mattia Toaldo, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Reuters Global Oil Forum.