TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The powerful interior minister of Libya’s UN-backed government, seen as a contender for the post of prime minister, has expressed hopes that bringing stability to his war-torn country would become a top priority for the incoming Biden administration.
He also announced an upcoming major offensive by his Turkey-backed Libyan government forces in the country's west to go after militants and human smugglers, and invited the United States to assist.
“Our hopes were greatly lifted” by Joe Biden's election victory, Fathi Bashagha told The Associated Press earlier this week. “We hope that the new administration has a major role in Libya’s stability and reconciliation."
Bashagha, a former air force pilot and businessman, said he would be ready to take on the role of prime minister in a yet-to-be-formed unity government that could follow peace negotiations between Libya's warring sides.
Oil-rich Libya was plunged into chaos after a 2011 NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and split the country between the U.N.-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the east. Each side is backed by an array of local militias as well as regional and foreign powers.
Since last year, the two sides have been holding UN-led talks to name an interim government before elections later in 2021, but have so far failed to agree on a voting mechanism to do so. Bashagha’s name was floated as a candidate for premier, observers of the talks say.
In October, the warring sides agreed to a cease-fire, which raised expectations of a peaceful resolution, and said that foreign fighters would leave Libya.
Bashagha, who spoke to the AP over the phone from Tripoli, said the withdrawal of foreign forces would be gradual. The rival east-based authorities have been bolstered by Russian mercenaries. Meanwhile, Turkey sent its own troops, Syrian mercenaries and drones to shore up the Tripoli-based government. Both Russia and Turkey are eyeing contracts worth billions of dollars. The interior minister said he told Russia that Libya is prepared to talk business if the mercenaries leave.
Bashagha also credited U.S. efforts in helping defeat Islamic State militants in the coastal city of Sirte in 2016. In 2019, the U.S. said its airstrikes in southern Libya killed dozens of members of the local IS affiliate. Bashagha says cooperation with the U.S. is ongoing.
But he warned that extremists regained a foothold during an attempt by east-based Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter to capture Tripoli. Hifter’s forces have also targeted IS militants in their strongholds and last year said they killed the top IS figure in Libya.
Bashagha said he hoped the U.S. would back the upcoming operation in the west. Turkey has already pledged support, he said. “We hope the U.S. will assist us ... to finish off terrorist elements that have infiltrated Libya.”
The Trump administration's position on Libya has at times been confusing. The U.S. State Department condemned Hifter's push on Tripoli, but then Trump also made a phone call to Hifter, praising him on fighting terrorism. The administration later repeatedly spoke out against the Russian mercenaries employed by Hifter, who is also backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Since becoming interior minister in 2018, Bashagha has positioned himself as one of the most powerful figures in western Libya. He cultivated ties with Turkey, France and the U.S., but also with Egypt and Russia — his nominal rivals in the conflict. Last month in Tripoli, he hosted a foreign ministry and senior intelligence delegation from Egypt.
But his ministry has also struggled to control the patchwork of militias that hold sway in Tripoli and western Libya. Bashagha said he plans to tackle the problem by identifying militias that should be disarmed and those that could be assimilated into the security apparatus. But he said he has faced problems in implementing the plan, alleging that some militias are allied with other Tripoli officials and control some institutions, such as the intelligence apparatus.
Libya has been plagued by corruption under Gadhafi and in the tumultuous years that have followed his ouster. “The problem is that some of the parts, institutions of the state provide support to these militias,” Bashagha said.
The U.N.-backed government remains heavily dependent on the militias to battle its eastern rivals. But the militias are not easily controlled and though they, with Turkish support, beat back Hifter’s year-long offensive on Tripoli, some have also been responsible for kidnappings, infighting and civilian casualties.
For its part, the Tripoli government has faced criticism for its handling of the thousands of migrants who transit through Libya, attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.
A 2019 AP investigation found that militias in western Libya torture, extort and otherwise abuse migrants for ransom in detention centers, often under the U.N.'s nose and in compounds that receive millions in European money. Conditions for migrants remain dangerous in Tripoli, according to rights groups and the U.N.
Bashagha said he had closed down illegal shelters and was working with the U.N. to monitor conditions in the remaining ones, but that more funds are needed to maintain them. He also pointed to the arrest in October of Abdel-Rahman Milad, one of the country’s most wanted human traffickers, two years after the U.N. leveled sanctions against him.
He said his new operation in the country’s west would also target migrant smugglers and could help address the root of the problem.
“The security and stability of Libya is important for Europe and the U.S.,” Bashagha said.