Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, who has launched a military offensive against the UN-recognised government in Tripoli, held surprise talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome on Thursday ahead of a visit to Paris next week, officials said.
Conte said he urged Haftar halt his attack on the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who also travelled to Rome and Paris for talks last week.
“It was a fairly long meeting, a lengthy exchange of information,” Conte told journalists. “I informed him of the government’s position. We want a ceasefire and we feel that the political path is the only solution.”
Conte said last week that he wanted to meet Haftar after his talks with Sarraj.
The Libyan military chief, whose forces control large swathes of the country’s east, will travel next week to Paris for talks with President Emmanuel Macron, his office said.
“The goal will be to discuss the situation in Libya and the conditions for resuming a political dialogue… in conjunction with the UN and our partners,” an Elysee Palace official said.
France and Italy are the two lead European powers seeking to find a solution to years of instability, spreading Islamic extremism and a migrant crisis in Libya which fell into chaos after the NATO-backed toppling of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
But the neighbours are seen by experts as also competing for influence and the issue has caused tensions between the governments.
Sarraj, who is seen as being close to Rome, has accused France of supporting “dictator” Haftar’s campaign against his internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
Paris has rejected the claims, saying it supports Sarraj but also considers Haftar a key player in rebuilding Libya after years of strife.
Macron met Sarraj in Paris on May 8 and on that occasion “reaffirmed” French “support” both for the prime minister and for an “unconditional ceasefire.”
Some observers see France’s stance as ambiguous, however, given that Paris in the past has supplied military intelligence to Haftar in eastern and southern Libya.
“Faced with the growing power of Islamic State in eastern Libya, France has made a strategic choice for some years. She has resolved to discreetly support Khalifa Haftar to try to reduce the terrorist threat,” said Thomas Hoffnung, a journalist and specialist on African affairs.
France has furthermore “given the impression in recent years of compromising herself with an apprentice dictator,” suggested former French ambassador to Syria and advisor to the Institut Montaigne think-tank Michel Duclos.
Haftar’s bid to unseat Sarraj and take control of the Libyan capital has reached a military and political impasse after more than a month of fighting.
After an initial advance, forces loyal to the GNA launched a counter-offensive that has led to a stalemate on the ground.
The fighting has killed at least 430 people and wounded over 2,000 while displacing 55,000 others, according to UN estimates.
The European Union on Monday called for all sides in the conflict to put down their arms and commit to UN talks, saying the offensive was a threat to international peace.
“The situation in Libya is very worrying because the roadmap proposed by the United Nations… has been jeopardised by both the move by Marshal Haftar and by the move, or non-move by Prime Minister Sarraj,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers on Tuesday.