January 31, 2019 / 3:16 PM / 3 months ago

Exclusive: U.N. may push back Libya election conference

TUNIS/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - The United Nations is likely to delay a conference intended to prepare Libya for elections this year until there is more support from rival leaders, sources familiar with the plans said.

FILE PHOTO: U.N. Envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tripoli, Libya March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Hani Amar/File Photo

The national meeting is central to a U.N. and Western roadmap for a vote in Libya as a way out of its eight-year war since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

But big players and their allied armed groups wield considerable power under the status quo, and there is mistrust between rival governments and parliaments.

Libya splintered following the NATO-backed revolt against Gaddafi and has since 2014 been divided between competing political and armed groups based in Tripoli and the east.

More delay in the U.N.-sponsored conference, where Libyans from all walks of society are supposed to decide details of their elections such as the presidential or parliamentary system, would also probably push back an actual vote.

Under a French plan, Libya was meant to hold elections last Dec. 10, but that was shelved due to divisions among rival leaders and a spike in violence in the capital Tripoli.

In a new push, U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame wanted a conference in “the first weeks of 2019” with potential polls by June. But momentum for that has been lost due to resistance from major parties backing the parallel governments in Tripoli and the east who benefit from access to oil revenues and jobs for armed groups in the absence of police.

EAST-WEST POWER PLAY

Sources familiar with the U.N. plans told Reuters the conference could still happen by the end of February, but a delay until at least March looked more likely.

“Salame won’t announce a venue and date ahead until he thinks there is enough support from all sides,” one source said.

The U.N. mission in Libya said it was seeking a successful meeting but no date was set yet. “We plan for the conference to happen as soon as possible,” it said in a statement to Reuters.

Diplomats say the conference is a “last joker” in the pack for Salame who has toiled since September 2017 for elections.

Western nations hope ordinary Libyans will pressure armed groups into a peaceful solution

But in eastern Libya, some worry the forum may give a platform to Islamists and other opponents defeated by the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar.

FILE PHOTO: U.N. Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame gestures as he speaks during a news conference after the second day of the international conference on Libya in Palermo, Italy November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane/File Photo

Some 20 lawmakers in the eastern-based parliament last week proposed to ban the Muslim Brotherhood. That would make it difficult to talk to Khaled Mishri, head of a rival parliament in Tripoli who is close to the Brotherhood.

“I personally think the conference is a good idea but it will be hard to achieve results,” said eastern lawmaker Hamd Bazaq.

Diplomats fear a recent spat between Salame and the LNA might further complicate preparing the conference.

Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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