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Sunday, 19th January 2020
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North Africa

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Libya’s warring leaders were due to hold peace talks in Moscow on Monday with Russia and Turkey urging the rivals to sign a binding truce to end a nine-month-old war and pave the way for a settlement that would stabilise the North African country.

The Russo-Turkish push, which brings together the Libyan leaders for the first time in almost a year, is the latest attempt to end chaos that has engulfed the oil-producing country since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Khalifa Haftar, commander of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) faction which has been trying to conquer the capital Tripoli, and Fayez al-Serraj, who heads the rival Tripoli-based recognised government, were both in Moscow, Russian diplomats said.

Both men last met in Abu Dhabi in February last year before talks broke down over a power-sharing deal and Haftar moved his troops on Tripoli in April, expanding his control beyond the east and south.

The Moscow talks take place ahead of a summit in Berlin on Sunday which is expected to bring together the foreign backers of both Libyan camps.

Turkey backs Haftar’s rival, Serraj, while Russian military contractors have been deployed alongside Haftar’s LNA forces, which are also backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan.

The Tripoli war has wrecked Libya’s economy and risks disrupting oil production and triggering flows of African migrants trying to reach Europe by boats with the help of smugglers exploiting the chaos. 

SKIRMISHES

The Moscow talks come after a ceasefire, initiated by Turkey and Russia, saw a lull in heavy fighting and air strikes on Sunday, though both factions accused each other of violating that truce as skirmishes continued around Tripoli.

Haftar’s troops have not been able to breach Tripoli’s defences but have in recent weeks made some small progress with the help of the Russian mercenaries, residents say. That has pushed Turkey, which has business interests in the country, to deploy soldiers to Libya to help the embattled Tripoli government.

Russia and Turkey’s foreign and defence ministers held talks on Libya on Monday morning and would later be joined by the two Libyan delegations, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said.

Separately, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte flew to Ankara on Monday for talks on Libya with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Conte suffered a setback last week after Rome’s own bid to play a central role in resolving Libya’s conflict came off the rails.

Russia and Turkey have turned into major players in Libya, joining Arab countries such as Egypt or the UAE which have filled a void left by Western powers showing little interest in the OPEC producer since 2011.

Asked about Russian mercenaries, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday that any Russian citizens fighting in Libya were not representing the interests of the Russian state or receiving money from it. 

During a visit to Moscow on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Berlin wanted to host Libyan peace talks to build on what she said she hoped would be successful joint efforts by Russia and Turkey to stop the conflict.

Germany plans to hold that summit on Jan. 19, two participants in the preparatory negotiations said on Monday. The Turkish presidency said Erdogan would come to Berlin for a one-day visit on Jan. 19, but gave no further details.

-Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Libyan peace talks will be held in Berlin, as Turkey and Russia appealed to the north African nation’s warring factions to enter a ceasefire.

“We hope that the joint efforts by Russia and Turkey will lead to success, and we will soon send out invitations for a conference in Berlin,” Merkel said on Saturday during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

She stressed that the United Nations would lead talks if a meeting were to take place in Berlin, and that Libya’s warring parties would need to play a major role to help find a solution.

The aim was to give Libya the chance to become a sovereign and peaceful country, Merkel said.

Putin expressed support for the process, saying it was a “timely” idea and necessary to bring the conflict in Libya to an end.

The comments came days after Turkey and Russia urged Libya’s warring parties to declare a ceasefire. 

Fayez al-Serraj, head of Libya’s internationally recognised government, said he welcomed the peace initiative by Russia and Turkey.

“The condition is the withdrawal of the attacking party, which does not seem willing to do so”, he said after holding talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome on Saturday.

Libyan forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar said this week they had taken control of the strategic coastal city of Sirte in a rapid advance preceded by air strikes.

Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army was also considered responsible for a deadly drone attack on a military academy in the capital Tripoli.

Conte said on Saturday he expressed his “consternation” to General Haftar for the January 4 attack in Tripoli, after meeting him in Rome earlier this week.

“We are working hard as a government for the immediate goal of a ceasefire and to steer the conflict towards a political solution,” Conte said. 

Turkey backs al-Serraj’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and has said it will send military advisers and possibly troops to reinforce its support, while Russian military contractors have been deployed alongside General Haftar.

Asked if he was aware of the presence of Russian mercenaries in Libya Putin said: “If there are Russian citizens there, then they are not representing the interests of the Russian state and they are not receiving money from the Russian state.”

-Reuters

An Egyptian military court sentenced a Libyan man to death and 32 other defendants to life over a deadly 2017 attack in the Western Desert, the army spokesperson said on Sunday.

The incident took place in October 2017 when a deadly firefight broke out during a raid by Egyptian police on a remote militant hideout southwest of Cairo.

Authorities said at the time that 16 policemen were killed and that 15 militants were either killed or wounded.

Army spokesperson Tamer al-Rifai said in a statement on Sunday that the military criminal court ordered the "execution by hanging" of Libyan national Abdelreheem Mohamed al-Mesmary, the main defendant in the case. 

The court also ordered "life and rigorous imprisonment of 32 defendants and the acquittal of 20 others", the statement added.

Of the 32 sentenced to life terms, 10 were sentenced in absentia, the army added.

It was not immediately clear how many of the defendants were Egyptians or Libyans.

The defendants were accused of forming and joining a "terrorist" group in Libya, targeting security personnel, murder and carrying out hostile operations against vital facilities, according to the army. 

Militant attacks targeting security personnel increased after the 2013 military ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following mass protests against his rule.

The attacks were largely centred on the turbulent northern Sinai region but have sporadically occurred on the mainland as well as in the Western Desert along the porous border with Libya.

In February 2018, Egypt launched a nationwide offensive against jihadists, mainly focused on North Sinai but also covering the Western Desert and other regions.

-AFP

At least 24 Tunisians were killed on Sunday after a bus crashed during an excursion in the northern town of Amdoun, the health ministry said.

The bus veered off a winding road when the driver failed to negotiate a sharp turn and crashed to the bottom of a ravine, the interior ministry said.

The bus was carrying 43 people, officials said.

President Kais Saied and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed attended the crash site in the northwestern region of Tunisia, which attracts large numbers of visitors but has poor infrastructure.

-Reuters

Egypt has been trying to deflect criticism of its human rights record and prison conditions ahead of a U.N. review in Geneva on Wednesday that comes in the wake of thousands of new arrests.

The crackdown, which rights activists say was the most intensive campaign of arrests for years, came after rare protests against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo and other cities in late September.

More than 4,400 were detained, among them prominent activists, lawyers, academics and political figures, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.

Around 3,000 are still being held under charges including using social media to spread false news, joining a banned terrorist group, and protesting without a permit, ECRF said.

In late September, Egypt’s public prosecution acknowledged the arrest of not more than 1,000 people accused of involvement in the protests.

Some of the detained are in Cairo’s Tora prison, where relatives and lawyers say inmates are often held in poor conditions and denied adequate healthcare.

Tora is the prison complex in which former president Mohamed Mursi, whose overthrow in 2013 was led by Sisi, suffered a fatal heart attack in June during a courtroom hearing.

U.N. experts said on Friday the prison regime may have led directly to Mursi’s death after he was held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and was denied life-saving care for diabetes and high blood pressure.

Thousands more are at severe risk, the experts said, adding that two senior former aides of the banned Brotherhood were “effectively being killed by the conditions under which they are held and the denial of medical treatment”. 

Egyptian officials have denied mistreating prisoners or neglecting their health.

PRISON INSPECTION

On Sunday, Egypt’s State Information Service released a video of an inspection of Tora by officials from the state security prosecution service. It included interviews with two prisoners who said they were largely satisfied with conditions.

A series of photos at the start of the film showed the officials visiting a well-stocked pharmacy and grocery shop, and tasting food in the prison refectory.

On Monday, selected local and foreign journalists were invited to visit Tora, where they were shown a football match for prisoners, farm animals, and a metal workshop, but were not allowed to talk to inmates, according to one reporter present. Reuters was not invited on the visit.

State TV has also aired a short programme on the detention system with a commentary saying that prisons are being modernised in line with international standards.

Criticism from Western powers keen to develop security and economic ties with Sisi’s Egypt has been muted, and the session in Geneva provides a rare forum in which they can pose questions publicly.

The U.N. Human Rights Council will be reviewing Egypt’s record for the first time in five years, as part of the forum’s regular appraisal of all U.N. member states.

Advance questions cover prison conditions, torture and the recent arrests of activists, among other issues. One rights lawyer, Mohamed al-Baqer, was interrogated over his engagement with the U.N. review following his detention, according to a question submitted by Liechtenstein.

International rights group Amnesty International called on states “to vehemently condemn the vicious crackdown by authorities against NGO workers and civil society”.

It said that since accepting 237 out of 300 recommendations at its last review in 2014, Egyptian authorities, had “adopted even more repressive measures that further restricted basic rights and freedoms”.

-Reuters 

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