The U.N. envoy to war-torn Libya said Wednesday he has launched "an intensive campaign" for an international conference to deliver a message that the offensive launched five months ago by a rebel commander must end.
Ghassan Salame warned the Security Council that unless key regional and international countries recognize that only a political solution can ensure Libya's stability, "the conflict will continue."
Without an immediate end to the conflict, he said, "we are faced with two highly unpalatable scenarios" — a protracted low-intensity conflict with more destruction "and a growing transnational terrorist threat," or "a doubling down of military support to one side or the other by their external patrons" that will sharply escalate fighting and "assuredly plunge the entire region into chaos."
A civil war in Libya in 2011 toppled and later killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
In the chaos that followed, the country was divided, with a weak U.N.-supported administration in Tripoli overseeing the country's west, and a rival government in the east aligned with the self-styled Libyan National Army led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter. Each is backed by an array of militias and armed groups fighting over resources and territory.
Hifter's LNA launched a surprise military offensive on April 4 aimed at capturing Tripoli. The LNA is the largest and best organized of the country's many militias, and enjoys the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. But it has faced stiff resistance from fighters aligned with the U.N.-recognized government, which is aided by Turkey and Qatar.
Salame told the Security Council by video from Tripoli that since April 4, more than 100 civilians have been killed, over 300 injured, and 120,000 displaced. "There are no confirmed figures for the total number of fighters who have died so far, but anecdotally the figure appears to be in the low thousands," he said.
Salame said a truce he called for during last month's Eid al Adha Muslim holiday largely held despite some violations, and it garnered wide public support, though violence has since resumed.
The United Nations is working to build on the truce through confidence-building measures including the exchange of prisoners, exchanges of human remains, family visits to prisoners and in some cases phone calls to prove that loved ones are still alive, he said.
As part of his campaign for an international meeting, Salame said he visited Germany, Malta, the UAE, Turkey, Tunisia and just two days ago Cairo, where he said he had "lengthy and constructive discussions with leading officials."
"I intend to continue my tour in the days ahead," he said.
Salame said he was grateful for the "strong message" delivered by the Group of Seven major industrialized nations last month calling for an international conference and stating that only a political solution can ensure Libya's stability.
He said the U.N. would like a conference to send a strong message on the need to respect the U.N. arms embargo on Libya, "to commit to non-interference in Libyan affairs, and to address the main causes of conflict as formulated by the Libyans themselves and to emphasize its clear and active support for whatever political formula the Libyans agree to."
Salame said that such a conference is crucial to get the commitment of the external players to end the conflict and resume a Libyan-owned political process.
Without support of the Security Council and the broader international community, he said, the war won't end.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, the current Security Council president, told reporters after closed discussions among its 15 members that everyone agreed "the situation in these five months proves that there is no military solution."
He said council members also agreed the parties should stop hostilities, agree to a cease-fire, and return to political negotiations under U.N. auspices — and that all countries should observe the arms embargo.
Nebenzia said an international conference would send a message to the parties "that they should seriously be engaging in the political settlement."
"Of course, the situation in the last few months has made the whole atmosphere not very conducive," he said, "but we have to restore this atmosphere to be able to engage in a political process."