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Libyan commander Haftar commits to attending Sicily conference, Italy says

Italy is anxious military leader attends, fearing no-show on his part would kill hopes of political settlement to end violence in Libya
Khalifa Haftar, military commander who controls eastern Libya (AFP.file photo)

Khalifa Haftar, a military commander who controls eastern Libya, said he will attend a conference in Sicily next month aimed at reconciling rival factions in the north African nation, Italy's foreign minister said on Saturday.

The meeting will be held in the Sicilian capital, Palermo, on 12 and 13 November, with key players from both within Libya and abroad set to take part, Enzo Moavero told reporters on the sidelines of a conference in Florence, Italy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is among foreign leaders slated to attend, while the United States, Russia and France have also promised to send high-level representatives, Moavero said.

Italy is particularly anxious to ensure that Haftar turns up, fearing a no-show on his part would kill off any hopes of finding a political settlement to end years of violence in the oil-rich nation and stem the flow of people trying to use it as a point of embarkation in making their way to Europe.

"He should be there. He gave us his assurance that he would be, so we count on the fact that he will be there," Moavero said.

Since 2015, Italy has received 600,000 migrants and asylum seekers on its coast, most coming through war-torn Libya.

Far-right Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who came to power in June as part of a populist government, has closed Italian ports to civilian and military boats that have rescued people, saying Italy bears an unfair share of the migrant burden.

The treatment of African asylum seekers in Libya drew international condemnation after it was revealed that European countries were pushing migrants found at sea back to Libyan detention centres rife with abuse, torture and other inhumane treatment.

In early September, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released a report that found that while the number of Mediterranean crossings was down, they had become deadlier.

"With the number of people arriving on European shores falling, this is no longer a test of whether Europe can manage the numbers, but whether Europe can muster the humanity to save lives," said Pascale Moreau, the director of UNHCR's Europe bureau.

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Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) last year seized the country's second-largest city, Benghazi, by expelling Islamist militants and other fighters. He is the main rival of Prime Minister Fayez Seraj, who leads a UN-brokered transitional government based in Tripoli, the capital.

While Seraj is firmly backed by Italy, Libya's former colonial ruler, Haftar has the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Libya slid into lawlessness after a Nato-backed uprising in 2011 that overthrew leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Haftar launched a campaign in May 2014 in Benghazi that lasted three years, styling himself as a military leader capable of restoring order. He has the official title of "field marshal".

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