TOBRUK, Libya (AP) — A rival Libyan prime minister says he plans to be in the country’s capital and seat his government there in a matter of days — even though a parallel administration opposing his is currently located in Tripoli.
Fathi Bashagha expressed his belief that the war-torn country could be unified without more fighting and that his government will focus on holding elections soon, the only way out of Libya’s decade-old conflict.
However, his statement is likely to add to fears that Libya’s two rival administrations are heading into a deeper confrontation and that the divisions signal a return to civil strife after more than a year of relative calm. On Thursday, the United Nations and the United States urged restraint and expressed concern over reports of armed groups deploying in and around Tripoli.
“The sole political solution in Libya is to hold presidential and parliamentary elections,” Bashagha said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday in the eastern city of Tobruk.
A former air force pilot and businessman, Bashagha was named prime minister last month by the House of Representatives, which has been based in Tobruk. The lawmakers selected Bashagha to replace embattled Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who is based in Tripoli, claiming Dbeibah’s mandate had expired after Libya failed to hold its first presidential elections in December.
The failure to hold the vote, which was scheduled for December 2021 under a U.N.-led reconciliation effort, was a major below to concerted international efforts to bring peace to the oil-rich North African nation. Bashagha’s appointment increased tensions and raised the possibility of renewed fighting in a country largely ruled by lawless militias and armed groups with conflicting interests.
Libya has been wrecked by chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled then killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. For years, it has been split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each supported by an array of militias and foreign governments.
Dbeibah has refused to step down and insists he will hand over power only to an elected government. He has sought to rally the international community by proposing a roadmap for parliamentary elections in June.
Appointed himself by a U.N.-led process in March of 2021, Dbeibah has called the push to replace his government “reckless” and a “farce” orchestrated by the political class hanging on to power, saying it could lead to more war. He mobilized allied militias in the capital and has closed its airspace to domestic flights in an apparent move to prevent Bashagha and his government from landing there.
Bashagha ruled out the possibility of a return to violence, saying that efforts were ongoing to find a peaceful settlement to the stalemate and allow his government to work from the capital. He did not elaborate on why he expects to be in Tripoli soon.
“There will be no disputes, no civil wars. This situation (infighting) will not return again,” Bashagha said. “We will be in Tripoli in the coming two or three days.“
Both prime ministers hail from the western city of Misrata, which played a major role in the Gadhafi’s overthrow and numerous bouts of civil fighting over the past decade, most recently in repelling a 2019 offensive on Tripoli by forces of east-based commander Khalifa Hifter.
The offensive failed after 14 months and an internationally brokered October 2020 cease-fire has kept a relative peace since. But long-running mistrust between eastern and western Libya remains.
Bashagha, who is also a former interior minister, has positioned himself as one of the most powerful figures in western Libya. He cultivated ties with Turkey, France and the United States, but also with Egypt and Russia — his nominal rivals during Hifter’s campaign to capture Tripoli.
In recent months, he has grown an alliance with Hifter, something Bashagha has defended, saying that establishing ties with the powerful, but polarizing commander will help unify the country and spare it from sliding once again into war.
“For the first time, there is a true rapprochement between the east and west,” he told the AP. “This is a good step.“
Holding elections in Libya still faces many deep-rooted and unresolved challenges, including controversial candidates and disputed laws governing elections, as well as deep mistrust between rival factions.
Meanwhile, at least three ministers resigned Thursday from Dbeibah’s Cabinet, citing their respect for the east-based parliament’s appointment of Bashaga. In videos on social media, the ministers of social services, migration and human rights said they were ready to hand over their portfolios in order to spare Libyans further divisions.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Noha el-Hennay in Cairo contributed to this report.
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