Leaders of Turkey, Russia urge Jan. 12 cease-fire in Libya

BRUSSELS (AP) — Turkey and Russia called for a Jan. 12 cease-fire in war-torn Libya on Wednesday while European Union officials intensified diplomatic efforts to cool tensions in the North African nation by holding talks with its prime minister.

In a related diplomatic push in Rome, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte met with Libya’s Gen. Khalifa Hifter, whose eastern-based forces have launched a fresh offensive against Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj’s U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the Jan. 12 cease-fire after the two met in Istanbul.

“Seeking a military solution to the ongoing conflict in Libya only causes further suffering and deepens the divisions among Libyans. Securing an immediate cease-fire is the foremost priority to start an inclusive intra-Libyan political process under U.N. auspices,” Erdogan and Putin said in a joint statement.

Libya is currently governed by dueling authorities in the east and in the west. The east-based government, backed by Hifter’s forces, is supported by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia. The western, Tripoli-based government receives aid from Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

The fighting has threatened to plunge Libya into violent chaos rivaling the 2011 conflict that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

“We have been following with great concern the recent developments, particularly the intensified fighting around Tripoli, in long-suffering Libya,” Putin and Erdogan’s statement said. “The worsening situation in Libya is undermining the security and stability of Libya’s wider neighborhood, the entire Mediterranean region, as well as the African continent, triggering irregular migration, the further spread of weapons, terrorism and other criminal activities including illicit trafficking.”

In Brussels, Libyan Prime Minister Sarraj met with European Council President Charles Michel and EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell. Earlier this week, the EU’s top diplomat and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy condemned Turkey’s plans to deploy troops to Libya.

Turkey’s parliament authorized the deployment of troops to help Serraj last Thursday. Turkey has begun sending Turkish soldiers to Libya for training and coordination.

“Michel expressed concerns about the worrying military escalations in Libya. He underlined that there is no military solution to the Libyan crisis, only a political process can bring peace and stability closer,” the European Council said in a statement. “Libyans should be at the heart of defining their own future.”

Borrell called the situation in Libya “very dangerous,” adding “we are maybe facing a watershed point.”

Hifter traveled to Rome on a previously unannounced visit to meet with the Italian premier. Conte received him with full honors at the premier’s palace.

An Italian government official said Serraj was also expected to meet with Conte on Wednesday but later said Serraj wouldn’t come after all.

Meanwhile, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio attended Libya talks in Cairo with his counterparts from Egypt, France, Cyprus and Greece. But Italy, which is Libya’s former colonial ruler and has extensive oil interests in the country, didn’t sign a final meeting statement reiterating calls for a political solution and condemning Turkey’s military alliance with the Serraj government.

The Egyptian, French, Cypriot and Greek ministers expressed support for talks in Berlin that wouldbring together both sides of the Libyan conflict. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the proposed summit in Germany, which was supposed to be held early this year, could be the “last chance” to draw a road map to peace.

In a sign that Hifter’s forces weren’t backing down, his self-styled Libyan National Army announced it was expanding the “no fly zone” around Tripoli. In a video statement, an LNA spokesman, Ahmed al-Mosmari, said the current no-fly zone would be expanded to include the city’s Mitiga airport, which has operated sporadically in recent months due to strikes.

Michel is scheduled to travel to Turkey on Saturday to meet with Erdogan to reiterate the EU’s deescalation message and to then head to Cairo to discuss the Libyan crisis with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

Michel also raised objections to the recent maritime pact between Turkey and Libya that has fueled tensions in the Mediterranean, particularly over drilling rights for gas and oil exploration.

The agreement would give Turkey and Libya access to an economic zone across the Mediterranean despite the objections of Greece, Egypt and Cyprus, which lie between the two geographically and say the deal is contrary to international law.

According to the European Council’s statement, Michel told Sarraj that the maritime deal “infringes upon the sovereign rights of third states and does not comply with the law of the sea.”

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Zeynep Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Rome. Maggie Hyde contributed from Cairo.