Italy has historically strong ties with Libya, although France has been recently seeking to take its positions in this country. We discussed the current developments in Libya with Vanessa Tomassini, a correspondent with the Notizie Geopolitiche newspaper and the Speciale Libia website, who is now working in Tunisia, but used to report from southern Tripoli.
What is the current situation in Libya?
- I stayed in Libya until April 21, and the situation that I found there was really horrific in a humanitarian sense. In the conflict zones, at least 50,000 people were forced to flee their homes, hundreds of wounded were rescued by the Libyan Red Crescent and brought to seven first-aid posts in and around Tripoli, in the areas affected by the worst clashes between Marshal Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) and forces related to Libya's Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj.
How do the Libyans assess the stance taken by Italy and its government in this conflict?
- Italy supports the Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and recognized by the United Nations. Nevertheless, Italy seems to be remaining neutral, without taking sides with any of the warring parties. Since the Palermo conference, Italy has been demonstrating its readiness for dialogue with Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who now controls all the eastern and southern regions of the country. This is an attitude of common sense and caution, given that the main cities of southern Libya received Haftar's troops quite enthusiastically. Even in those cities where Haftar cannot break the front of the coalition of armed groups from Misrata, Zintan and Zawiya, the majority of Libyans perceive the formation of a unified army and the resumption of security forces' activities as a top priority.
How much does the threat of new refugee flows affect Italy's decisions?
- To a great extent. Italy is the only country to reopen its diplomatic mission in Libya and is well aware of the risks it faces. During his visit to Rome, Prime Minister al-Sarraj told Prime Minister Conte that among the 800,000 migrants who are ready to leave Libya, there may be dangerous jihadists. Volunteer groups related to the Government of National Accord that run refugee centers, use the migrant factor to blackmail governments in search of support. One example - immediately after the Libyan Prime Minister's visit to Europe, there was an instant inexplicable increase in the number of departures from the city of Zuwarah. Of course, Italy is trying to protect itself from a new humanitarian emergency in order to avoid a repetition of what has happened in recent years.
The situation is also difficult because the people of Libya do not seem to have a clear idea of who should win this internecine war.
- It always happens so when a civil war is getting protracted, with the population being in despair and exhausted after living among corruption, violence and insecurity for eight years. I have recorded many statements from the cities where the troops who defended them literally opened the doors to Haftar's soldiers: a sense of despair and hopelessness results in a perception that anyone who has a clear stance and demonstrates a willingness to solve the challenges ordinary people are facing, is perceived as a liberator. Despite nearly overwhelming international support, al-Sarraj has not been able to take any specific steps to ensure stability during the four years after taking office.
How do the Libyans perceive the Italian presence?
- They have always perceived foreign interference in a negative way. Most of people I've met oppose any presence of foreign soldiers, including because of the spread of fake news and photo montages on social networks. Besides, the Libyans wonder who is actually receiving the assistance Italy is talking about. Just one example: in 2017, the Italian government allocated three million euros to solve the problem of waste disposal and clearing Tripoli. Well, I was in the city and I saw that the waste emergency was still very alarming: the streets in downtown Tripoli and on the outskirts were chocking with trash. Obviously, someone used the money for other purposes, so the Libyans consider it a sheer mockery. I often hear from them that the Italians are neutral in word alone, because they have too many interests in Tripolitania, an embassy in Tripoli and a field hospital in Misrata (where terrorists were undergoing treatment, as LNA representatives claim). This puts Italy in an ambiguous state, especially after the scandal with the Mirage F1 aircraft mercenary pilot from the Misrata Air College group who was shot down and captured by Haftar's troops. All this adds to an assumption that Italy is still involved in the conflict, perhaps via the military supplies.
But Italy does have economic interests in Libya, namely the ENI company?
- The Government of National Accord has threatened France's Total and other European companies. On the other hand, as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees emphasizes, militias are using refugee centers to hide equipment and military hardware, endangering the lives of those dwelling there and using them as human shields. The interests of ENI are certainly the key element of Italy's actions, but not the only one: for the time being, the distribution of refugee flows is a more acute problem. Besides, the largest oil terminals in Fezzan and Mezzaluna have been controlled by groups associated with Haftar for quite a long time, with financial injections managed by the Libyan Central Bank in Tripoli, which the UN regards as the only legitimate banking establishment.
They also talk about protests against the French.
- I witnessed several demonstrations against the French intervention, but with as few participants as possible. However, such statements should not be ignored or underestimated. Earlier there were also anti-Italian protests. There is a sense that Libya is a battlefield between different regional players, each acting in its own interests, but all at the expense of the Libyan people.
Although some argue this is false, but does the problem of terrorism and ISIS (banned in Russia) really exist in Libya?
- Absolutely so. At the moment, there are clashes in many directions south of Tripoli. Near the international airport, local militia who fought against Haftar said they refused to fight with members of the already disintegrated Ansaral-Sharia (a terrorist organization associated with al-Qaeda /banned in Russia/ – ed. note), whose presence in Tripoli is confirmed by the UN sanction lists. Those supporting al-Sarraj were probably joined by volunteer extremists like Salah Badi, the leader of the Libya Dawn Islamic coalition responsible for the 2014 airport destruction and included in the UN blacklist. The extremists themselves, along with some individuals wanted for smuggling people and oil, have posted videos claiming to have joined the battle against whom they call the new dictator and who actually poses a serious threat to their interests.