Libyan unity PM declares coast road open but eastern forces still block it

·3-min read
Libya's Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh attends a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow

By Ahmed Elumami

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) -The head of Libya's unity government on Sunday declared the main coast road across its inactive front line reopened, but eastern-based forces allowed no traffic through, underscoring unresolved divisions that threaten a fragile peace process.

Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh used a mechanical digger to remove the earth roadblock at the last western checkpoint on the highway.

"We will meet soon in Sirte," he said, referring to the city just across the front line further down the desert road as he opened its western end, three days before international talks on Libya are due to resume in Germany.

But the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar - which holds most of eastern and southern Libya - did not open the road beyond the front line, and a media unit of the LNA said there was "no truth to what is rumoured about it reopening".

Dbeibeh's convoy headed east towards Sirte but stopped at point nearer LNA positions, where shipping containers and another earthen rampart cut the road, and turned back.

The incident highlights the difficulties facing Dbeibeh, whose government is officially recognised by both sides in Libya and their foreign backers.

The eastern-based parliament has for weeks blocked Dbeibeh's efforts to pass a budget and, earlier on Sunday, the LNA said it had closed the border with Algeria after deploying forces in the south.

HAFTAR'S ROLE

Libya, a major North African oil producer, has had little peace or stability since a NATO-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and a split in 2014 between warring eastern and western factions. Several armed groups still wield power in different areas.

A ceasefire agreed in September after Haftar's 14-month assault on Tripoli collapsed called for the coast road to reopen and all foreign mercenaries to leave the front line area, but they remain entrenched in and around LNA-held Sirte.

The truce and the formation of Dbeibeh's Government of National Unity (GNU) were both agreed through a talks process facilitated by the United Nations and backed by the international community.

International authorities are due to meet in Berlin on Wednesday to discuss the crisis and progress towards unifying the country's fragmented institutions and holding elections planned for December.

But neither the U.N. talks’ participants nor the divided, eastern-based parliament have agreed on a constitutional basis for the vote to go ahead, opening potential challenges to its legitimacy.

Meanwhile, any election would take place in a country where cities and towns remain under the control of armed groups whose own leaders might themselves stand for office.

Along the coast road, the large covered checkpoints and a burned-out petrol station underscored the continued tensions.

In Misrata, 28-year old civil servant Ali Mohamed al-Mogasbi said he thought the reopening of the road would be a good step forward. "But it's also important to guarantee that all mercenaries should leave," he added.

(Writing by Angus McDowall, editing by Mark Heinrich and John Stonestreet)

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