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Libya leaders arrive in Italy for peace talks

Italy hopes conference resurrects UN efforts to stage elections in Libya, but peace talks off to rocky start as PM Giuseppe Conte arrives late
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) meets with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj (R) for peace talks in Palermo (Reuters)

The rulers of Libya's rival east and west gathered at a summit for the first time in more than five months on Monday, a week after the United Nations buried plans to hold an election next month.

Khalifa Haftar, the rival leader ruling most of Libya's east, arrived in the evening in the Italian city of Palermo for a two-day summit to discuss a UN peace plan to stabilise the North African country, in turmoil since 2011.

Libya's Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, who is based in the west and has limited authority, arrived earlier on Monday.

Italy hopes the conference will resurrect UN efforts to stage elections in Libya, after the UN announced last week that the OPEC member country could not hold a planned election on 10 December because of violence and stalled talks.

However, according to a Guardian report, the meeting initially fell flat as Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte arrived late and Italy’s foreign minister flew to Brussels instead of attending.

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Haftar decided not to attend a working dinner at the Villa Igiea venue but was expected to return for bilateral talks with Conte later in the evening.

The summit will assemble Libya's main rivals for the first time since a similar event in Paris in May, where they had agreed to the plan to hold the December election.

It was not clear whether the Libyan participants would actually meet directly. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will hold some bilateral meetings including with Haftar late on Monday, an official said.

Serraj vs Haftar

Serraj's western-based government is internationally recognised but has struggled to assert its authority in a country still mostly controlled by armed groups, eight years after NATO-backed rebels toppled former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

A rival government is based in the east, where most towns and cities are under the control of Haftar.

Apart from Haftar, the heads of the two parliaments based in the east and west, Aguila Saleh and Khalid al-Mishri, were also attending, officials said.

Italy, the former colonial power, has vast oil and gas interests in Libya and has been trying to shut down people-smuggling from the Libyan coast.

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte meets with rival Libya leader Khalifa Haftar in Palermo (Reuters)

Apart from Western, UN and Russian officials, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was also attending.

UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame told Reuters he hoped another attempt to hold an election will take place by June but Libyans should first hold a national conference in early 2019 to decide on the poll's format.

"We want to ask at the national conference what type of election do you want: parliamentary or presidential, and what kind of law," Salame said.

The envoy said the national conference should "preferably" take place on Libyan soil. Surveys had shown that 80 percent of Libyans want elections to end the stalemate between Libya's rival administrations.

Diplomatic wrangling between Italy and France hangs over this summit.

France has been courting Haftar, who is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see his forces as a bulwark against Islamists.

Italy is the main backer of Serraj and his weak Government of National Accord (GNA) and has worked with local groups in Libya to stop Europe-bound refugees and migrants from embarking by boat.

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