ROME (AP) — Italy, Germany and the United States pushed Monday for a cease-fire and de-escalation of tensions in Libya following a warning by Egypt that it would intervene militarily if Turkish-backed forces attack the strategic city of Sirte.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, said after talks in Rome that a cease-fire is urgent given the Egyptian threat. Di Maio also called for the quick naming of a new U.N. envoy and the strong enforcement of a U.N. arms embargo on Libya.
“If we stop the arrival of weapons, or strongly reduce them, we will be able to reduce the aggressiveness of the Libyan parties in this conflict,” Di Maio said.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi warned over the weekend that any attack on Sirte or the inland Jufra air base by Turkish-backed forces loyal to the U.N.-supported but weak government in Tripoli would amount to crossing a “red line.”
He said Egypt could intervene militarily with the intention of protecting its western border with the oil-rich country, and of bringing stability — including establishing conditions for a cease-fire.
The Tripoli-based government dismissed el-Sissi’s comments as a “declaration of war” while authorities in the east welcomed his support.
U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of Africa Command, and U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland meanwhile met Monday with Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj in the Libyan capital, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy.
It said the two U.S. officials stressed the “need for military pause and return to negotiations.”
“All sides need to return to U.N.-led ceasefire and political negotiations because this tragic conflict is robbing all Libyans of their future,” Townsend said.
Norland called for foreign countries supporting Libya’s rivals to stop “fueling the conflict, respect the U.N. arms embargo, and uphold commitments made at the Berlin Summit” earlier this year.
The German foreign minister said the Egyptian threat indicated that a further escalation was possible, making it “all the more urgent to agree on a cease-fire now.”
Di Maio, for his part, said Italy was prepared to provide even more contributions to a naval and air mission to enforce the U.N. arms embargo on Libya, saying it will be crucial even after a cease-fire is signed.
“In the coming days we will have talks with the Libyan parties to try to bring forward as soon as possible the signing of a cease-fire,” Di Maio said. “Even once there is a cease-fire, I think the (arms embargo) mission will continue to be important, because especially with a cease-fire, we have to limit the arrival of weapons in Libya.”
Italy is particularly concerned that any escalation of the conflict will unleash more waves of migrants onto smugglers’ boats headed for Italian shores. The coronavirus emergency in hard-hit Italy stemmed their arrivals, but authorities fear that the numbers will swell again with the health emergency easing and the return to the Mediterranean Sea of humanitarian rescue ships.
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
Eastern-based forces under Khalifa Hifter launched an offensive to try to take Tripoli in April last year. Hifter’s forces are backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli-allied militias are aided by Qatar, Italy and Turkey.
Tripoli-based forces with Turkish support gained the upper hand in the war earlier this month after retaking the capital’s airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city and a string of key towns near Tripoli. They threatened to retake Sirte, which could allow them to gain control oil fields and facilities in the south that Hifter seized earlier this year as part of his offensive on Tripoli.
Associated Press writers Samy Magdy in Cairo and David Rising in Berlin contributed.