US holds rare talks with rebel leader in Libya in hopes of brokering peace deal
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 20, 2019
STUTTGART, Germany — U.S. diplomats and military officials met this week with a Libyan militia leader whose offensive on Tripoli earlier this year forced American troops out of the country, but who is now seen as key to ending the country’s eight-year-old civil war.
U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland held talks in Abu Dhabi with “Field Marshal” Khalifa Hifter, who leads the so-called Libyan National Army, the U.S. Embassy in Libya announced Friday.
U.S. Africa Command’s deputy director for intelligence was on hand for the talks, which took place Thursday and were aimed at pushing toward a political deal between Hifter and Libya’s U.S.- and United Nations-backed Government of National Accord, AFRICOM said.
“AFRICOM is supportive of Department of State-led intensified engagement and inclusive dialogue to come to a political settlement,” AFRICOM spokesman Col. Chris Karns said in a statement. “The solution to the conflict is a political one.”
The last time U.S. officials met with Hifter was in December.
Months later, in April, AFRICOM pulled American troops from Libya as Hifter stepped up his fight against the government in Tripoli.
Of the scores of militias seeking to carve out territory in Libya for themselves since the NATO bombing campaign that helped topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Hifter’s forces have emerged as a potent force, seizing control of large swathes of the oil-rich country and challenging the ability of a weak central government to assert itself.
Libya’s political chaos has created conditions that could allow Islamic militant groups to come into the country and seek out safe havens from which to operate – a top concern for the U.S. military.
The threat posed by extremist groups In Libya was one of the topics discussed when AFRICOM head Gen. Stephen Townsend in Tunis in August with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
“We continue to monitor and remain deeply concerned about the conflict in Libya and what it means to regional stability… it is important the current security situation in Libya does not present a safe haven for terrorists or space for renewed activity,” Karns said.
While the U.S. no longer has troops in Libya, it still has intelligence and surveillance aircraft in the region to monitor conditions there, and has the authority to launch airstrikes against terrorist targets. AFRICOM hasn’t conducted any known attacks in 2019 but it has made periodic strikes in previous years, including 2016, when it launched hundreds of airstrikes as part of a campaign to help Libyan forces dislodge Islamic State militants from the coastal city of Sirte.
Now, Hifter’s forces are conducting air strikes in Sirte. Last week, warplanes under Hifter’s command hit several targets in the city, including forces aligned with the national government, Libyan media reported.
Hifter, who settled in Langley, Va. after the U.S. negotiated his release from a Libyan prison in 1990, returned to the North African country in 2011 to help topple Gadhafi.
In the years since, he has fought for control of Libya with support from outside powers, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which see him as a counterweight to Islamic extremists in north Africa. Hifter also has cultivated ties with Moscow.