BERLIN – Forces loyal to Libyan military strongman Khalifa Hifter blocked oil exports from the war-ravaged country’s main ports Saturday, raising the stakes on the eve of an international summit aimed at bringing peace to the North African nation.
The move to cripple the country’s main income source was a protest against Turkey’s decision to send troops to shore up Hifter’s rival, the head of Tripoli’s U.N.-recognized government, Fayez al-Sarraj.
It came ahead of a conference in Berlin on Sunday at which the United Nations will try to extract a pledge from world leaders to stop meddling in the Libyan conflict by supplying troops, weapons or financing. The gathering will be the first on such a scale since 2018 regarding the conflict.
“All foreign interference can provide some aspirin effect in the short term, but Libya needs all foreign interference to stop,” U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame said in an interview.
The presidents of Russia, Turkey and France as well as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are due to join the talks. Both Hifter and Sarraj are expected, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas confirmed Saturday.
After months of combat, which has killed more than 2,000 people, a cease-fire took effect on Jan. 12 backed by both Ankara and Moscow, which is accused of supporting Hifter.
But Saturday’s blockade raised fears over the conflict.
The disruption to oil exports is expected to more than halve the country’s daily crude production, to 500,000 barrels from 1.3 million barrels, translating to losses of $55 million a day, warned Libya’s National Oil Co.
Jalal Harchaoui, an expert at the Hague-based Institute Clingendael, said the blockade is part of “the logic of blackmail.”
“It can work, but there’s also a risk that Washington will react badly” he said.
The oil-rich country has been torn by fighting between rival factions since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising killed dictator Moammar Gadhafi and toppled his regime.
More recently, Hifter’s forces launched an assault in April on Sarraj’s troops in Tripoli.
Although Sarraj’s government is recognized by the U.N., some powerful players have broken away to stand behind Hifter — turning a domestic conflict into what is essentially a proxy war with international powers jostling to secure their own interests, from global influence to oil and migration.
Alarm grew internationally when Ankara ordered in troops early January to help shore up Sarraj. Moscow is suspected of providing weapons, financing and mercenaries to Hifter.
The U.N. had sought on multiple attempts to bid for peace, but talks have repeatedly collapsed.
On the eve of the Berlin talks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Europe to stand united behind Sarraj’s government because Tripoli’s fall could leave “fertile ground” for jihadi groups like IS or al-Qaida “to get back on their feet.”
Erdogan also played up Europe’s fears of a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis in his commentary for the Politico news website, that further unrest could prompt a new wave of migrants to head for the continent.
Accusing France in particular of siding with Hifter, Erdogan said leaving Libya to the commander would be a “mistake of historic proportions.”
France has denied it was backing Hifter. But a diplomatic source noted that the fact that the commander already controls 80 percent of Libya needed to be taken into account.
The European Union is watching the escalating strife on its doorstep with growing alarm because it counts on Libya as a gatekeeper deterring migrants from crossing the Mediterranean.
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