May 26, 2015 | Quote

Libyan Diplomat: Violence Likely If Peace Talks Fail

Libya faces renewed violence if a June 17 deadline for the conclusion of peace talks next month doesn't unify the country, a move that's needed to help resolve the Mediterranean migrant crisis and the Islamic State threat to Europe, Libya's top diplomat in Washington said. 

“The best way to fight terrorism and illegal emigration is by national institutions that can secure borders and prevent smuggling from happening,” Wafa Bugaighis told USA TODAY at the Libyan embassy.

If no agreement on unifying the country can be reached by the June deadline — the start of the Muslim month-long fast of Ramadan — Bugaighis said “the other options will be not peaceful options.”

The country's internationally recognized government has been based in the far-eastern city of Tobruk since the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups overtook Libya's capital of Tripoli last year after rejecting the results of violence-plagued parliamentary elections. The peace talks between those parties have been ongoing since January.

Libya, an oil-rich Mediterranean country located south of Italy and Greece, has become a major security concern for Europe as a result of twin crises connected to the country's civil war: a tide of migrants fleeing the chaos for Europe and the prospect that Islamic State militants will sneak into Europe along with the migrants.

Forces loyal to the Tobruk government have been fighting extremist militias allied with al-Qaeda around the eastern port city of Benghazi. Forces loyal to the Tripoli-based coalition, meanwhile, have been fighting Islamic State militants who in recent days took control of Sirte. That city is the hometown of Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's long-time dictator whose ousting with U.S. assistance in 2011 began the violence that continues to plague the country four years later.

In his meeting last week with Arab leaders from the Persian Gulf, President Obama urged Libya's Tobruk and Tripoli factions to focus on fighting the Islamic State instead of each other. Bugaighis says that appears to finally be happening.

“Most recently, we see more reconciliation in the western part of the country between rival groups,” she said. “There's more focus on combating terrorists and ISIS. Everybody at this point is alarmed at the threat.”

It's unclear whether the recent easing of tensions means a political solution is near.

Khalid Sherif, a former deputy defense minister aligned with Libya's exiled parliament, told Reuters this week that new elections should be held to resolve the country's political morass. But Bugaighis rejected that idea as impractical in the midst of so much violence.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington, said a negotiated solution is the best choice for Libya.

“What you have is a civil war in Libya where the sides are evenly matched,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “If you throw in with one of them, you're looking for another very long fight. I'm not sure we need another conflict in the Middle East where victory destroys the country.”


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