Leaders of the two most heavily armed towns in western Libya met on Wednesday for the first time since they fought for control of Tripoli four years ago, hailing the reconciliation talks as “historic”.
The towns of Misrata and Zintan were among the first to rise up against longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed in 2011.
The rebels had taken control of the capital in the summer of 2011, two months before Gaddafi was caught in his hometown of Sirte.
They shared strategic sites in Tripoli until 2014, when a coalition led by Misrata forced out the Zintanis after weeks of bloodshed.
Leaders of the armed groups and dignitaries from Misrata travelled to Zintan, 170 kilometres southeast of Tripoli, for a meeting that a final statement declared “historic”.
“This meeting is a first step which will be followed by others,” said Zintan mayor Mustafa al-Barouni at the start of the discussions.
“There will no longer be recourse to arms to settle our differences,” he vowed.
Ahead of the next meeting, which is to take place in Misrata, 200 km east of Tripoli, the two sides agreed to set up a committee to look into their main issues, such as the fate of prisoners and those who have disappeared.
Mohamad Rajab, head of Misrata’s military council, said Wednesday’s first session would facilitate “reconciliation with other regions and tribes”.
Their statement said both sides stressed the need to bring the army and police under a civilian authority and to fight militancy.
Libya has been gripped by chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled Gaddafi, with rival administrations and multiple militias vying for control of the oil-rich country.
Libya’s economy has been crippled since oil production was disrupted by blockades and conflict from 2013. Oil output recovered last year to more than one million barrels per day, partly due to production gains after the lifting of a pipeline blockade near Zintan.
Today a national unity government in Tripoli, which has international recognition, faces a rival authority supported by Khalifa Haftar in the east.
Haftar is accused by Misrata of seeking to set up a new military dictatorship in Libya.
Militants and people-traffickers have taken advantage of the chaos to gain a foothold in the North African country.
Briefing the UN Security Council last week, UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame said working towards free and credible elections in Libya in 2018 was a “top priority”.
A voter registration process began in December, but no election dates have been set and it is unclear how local, parliamentary and presidential polls would be sequenced.
The last parliamentary elections in 2014 led to rival governments being set up in Tripoli and the east, backed by competing armed alliances.
The United Nations has pointed to the voter registration process as evidence of Libyans’ enthusiasm for elections. Since December, more than 923,000 voters have registered, according to the electoral commission, bringing the total registered nationwide to more than 2.4 million.
However, analysts say this does not necessarily presage a high turnout, given security challenges and a voting population of as many as 4.5 million.