Fighting between Tunisian army soldiers and Islamic State militiamen at the Tunisian border with Libya on Monday left at least 54 people dead, including seven civilians and 10 soldiers. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi condemned the “unprecedented” attack, denouncing the jihadists’ attempt to proclaim a “new province” of the caliphate.
The Tunisian town is located just 100 miles from the Libyan province of Sabratha, where the U.S. sent air strikes on Feb. 19. The Tunisian authorities have imposed a night curfew and closed its border crossings. The attack, which may have been the Islamic State’s revenge for the Sabratha raids, has undermined the Tunisian government’s ability to control its borders.
And so, almost three months after Libyan factions agreed to form a unity government under Fayez el-Sarraj, unification seems farther and farther away. The country’s two parliaments, each claiming legitimacy, are no closer to a solution.
The prime minister of the government in Tripoli, Khalifa al-Ghawi, made good on his promise to arrest security officers of the new government if they set foot in the city. He detained three members of the Security Committee appointed to proceed with the formation of a national unity government. The U.N. envoy in Libya, Martin Kobler, intervened to demand that they be released and to proceed with elections.
Meanwhile, the parliament of Libya’s eastern region of Cyrenaica, with headquarters in Tobruk, continues to postpone the discussion on the unity government, especially after yet another offensive to take Benghazi from the hands of the jihadi group Ansar al-Sharia. Tobruk’s leader, General Khalifa Haftar, hopes to control all of Libya with the support of Egypt.
Yet the specter of an Italian invasion seems to be diminishing after pressure from Washington and statements from Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti, who called the prospect of intervention “unthinkable” and denied having put 5,000 troops on standby. “Renzi fully agrees with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,” Mattia Toaldo, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told il manifesto. “Also the Egyptian president is against the idea of international intervention.”
El-Sisi’s strategy, presented Monday in a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, would be to postpone the unity government, as well as international intervention, which could disrupt his effort to establish a buffer zone in Cyrenaica. El-Sisi wants to wear down the Fajr (Dawn) militias and corner the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood who support them.
Italy’s fence-sitting and France’s undeclared ground invasion only reinforce the weak executive power of Tobruk. Paris has never hidden its intentions to control the Fezzan desert, and it continues to support the military of Cyrenaica, at a time when Great Britain’s David Cameron seems more committed to resolving his own domestic squabbles. This attitude makes the government of Tripoli, supported by Qatar, more precarious and forces its hand in order to establish itself as a credible partner.
“We do not need soldiers, but weapons, ammunition and logistical support,” said the deputy minister of Tripoli, Ahmed al-Amhimid Hafar, on Monday, attempting to cash in on the success of the liberation of two kidnapped Italians, Gino Pollicardo and Filippo Calcagno. Two others, Fausto Piani and Salvatore Failla, were found dead.
But even the murder of the other two Italian hostages could be included in the logic of the political confrontation between the Sabratha militias, in order to gain credit in the eyes of the international community. It seems increasingly possible that the two Italians were killed by an inexperienced Sabratha militia, the city where they were being held, which could have traded them as foreign fighters.
“All the local militias want to prove to the U.S. they are fighting ISIS in order to earn the title of the ‘Libyan peshmerga,’” Toaldo said.
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