In U-turn, Libya’s Haftar attends Italy conference

Libyan General Khalifa Haftar today attended a conference in the Italian city of Palermo, just one day after it was thought discussions would take place without him.

The two-day Palermo conference aims to discuss a roadmap for uniting Libya’s institutions and preparing for a national election after years of civil war. Haftar had previously refused to attend the conference, citing the presence of Qatar “and other supporters of Al-Qaeda”.

Yet late yesterday evening sources confirmed that Haftar had arrived in the Sicilian city, with “live footage from the forum in Palermo show[ing] Haftar, dressed in a suit and coat, shaking hands with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte,” Reuters reported.

The Libyan Express added that: “Haftar was received by the Italian Prime Minister at the guest reception podium and, after a little chat, he went away and refused to enter for a dinner hosted by the PM for all the guest delegations.”

Whether Haftar will participate in the discussions now that he is in Palermo remains to be seen, after his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) said today that he had travelled to the conference only to “hold a series of meetings with presidents of regional countries to discuss the latest national and international developments”, not to speak with rival Libyan factions, according to Middle East Eye.

Among those regional leaders attending the conference are Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and his Tunisian counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi. Representatives of key Libyan factions, including Government of National Accord (GNA) President Fayez Al-Sarraj and Khalid Al-Mishri, head of the higher council of state in the Libyan capital Tripoli, are also in attendance, as well as their rival Aguila Saleh.

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The Palermo conference aims to bring these various Libyan factions to the table to find a solution to the now seven-year-old civil war and push for elections to be held. Although the factions had previously agreed to proceed with elections before December under the auspices of an international conference hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, progress quickly stalled amid accusations of hastiness and the exclusion of some factions from the process. Last week, the UN’s Special Envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, confirmed that elections were likely to be postponed until spring 2019.

Today’s conference has been interpreted by some as an attempt by Italy to regain diplomatic responsibility for Libya from France, which had previously taken the reins in negotiations. Italy has denied the allegations, with Prime Minister Conte stating that Italy and France “share the same viewpoint and objectives” on the situation and had worked closely to set up the current conference. Conte had worked particularly hard to secure the attendance of Haftar, allegedly visiting the Libyan general in Benghazi on Sunday to persuade him to travel to Palermo. Rome vehemently denied the allegations.

Libya has been ravaged by civil war since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. In 2014 the country split into rival camps with Haftar – who is believed to be supported by Egypt, France, Russia and the UAE – taking control of the east of the country and Fayez Al-Sarraj heading the GNA in the west, backed by the UN, Italy and others in the West.

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