Closed highway and dangerous desert detour underline challenges to Libyan peace

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Libyans watching a peace process nearing a critical phase this week in Switzerland need only try driving from one side of their country to the other to understand the obstacles to diplomacy.

An October ceasefire called for all foreign mercenaries to leave the country and for the main coastal road between west and east to reopen. But the mercenaries remain, the United Nations said last week, and the road is shut.

For those who cannot take one of the flights that resumed last year between the capital Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east, it means a long, dangerous detour through the desert.

“Drivers face violence and abuse. Sometimes we lose contact with the drivers for two days until they reach safety and can get a mobile signal,” said a transport company worker, who asked not to be named fearing reprisals from armed groups.

A 24-year-old driver from Benghazi, waiting in Tripoli to fill his minibus with goods to take back, said he had no other way to make a living.

“The road is difficult and there is a lot of looting. The trip takes about a day and a half,” he said. That is double the time it would take along the coastal road.

The continued closure of the key artery, and lawlessness along alternative routes, underline how Libya remains beset by instability 10 years after the NATO-backed uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi but unleashed civil war.

The United Nations last week urged both sides of the conflict to reopen the road, as it hosts a meeting near Geneva to select a new transitional government for the whole country to oversee the run-up to elections scheduled for December.

Belqasem Egzait, a member of the State Council set up as part of an earlier peace process, said he believed diplomacy was moving forward, but would be slow.

“The political track is by its nature complex. That complexity will continue,” he told Reuters.

However, some Libya experts have warned of the risk of renewed fighting as the process drags on.

The transport company worker said stories of attacks on drivers were commonplace.

“Last week a group of armed men stopped a driver and stole everything – even chemotherapy doses. The thugs will target anything they find.”

Obstacles

Libya has been split between factions in the west and east since 2014.

The latest round of diplomacy follows the failure last year of Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) to capture Tripoli, seat of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

In recent interviews with Reuters, leaders on both sides of the frontlines accused each other of refusing to abide by ceasefire terms that temporarily halted the 14-month assault.

The GNA defence minister, Saleh Namroush, who has nominated himself for a leadership role in the transitional government, said the LNA was bringing in more equipment and digging new defences.

But in Benghazi, LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari blamed armed groups in the west for breaching the agreement.

Along the frontline between the cities of Sirte and Misrata, a joint military committee is still discussing ceasefire terms. Both sides have dug in.

On the GNA side, a local field commander, Musa Araibi Mayouf, said the absence of fighting since the summer showed that the current talks were serious. But he acknowledged the risk of a return to warfare.



“There are obstacles. And they are the gentlemen who sit in the political chairs,” he said. His fighters, in camouflage uniforms, stood atop their “technicals” – pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.