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Donald Trump joins calls for Libya ceasefire

Donald Trump has joined the calls for a ceasefire in Libya amid concerns that Egypt would be willing to send ground troops into the country to prevent a rout of its ally Khalifa Haftar, the leader of forces in the east.

Airstrikes and rocket attacks in the latest outbreak of violence killed 19 civilians between 5 and 8 June, including three women and five children, according to the UN. At least 12 civilians have been injured.

As fighting continued, the UN said it was in close contact with military leaders on both sides in a bid to agree renewed terms for a ceasefire.

In a further sign of the growing international ramifications of the complex conflict, a tense standoff between Greek and Turkish ships in the Mediterranean narrowly avoided boiling over into a conflict over Turkish efforts to supply arms to Libya’s UN-recognised government.

The standoff came as a Greek helicopter, operating under the aegis of a European Union operation to enforce a UN arms embargo, moved to interrupt a Turkish cargo ship bound for Libya. 

A Greek helicopter linked by the Greek frigate Spetsai approached the Turkish cargo ship, prompting a Turkish naval vessel to come to its defence. With the two sides squaring up, the Italian commander of the EU’s Operation Irini  ordered the Greek ship to back off. Irini’s rules of engagement give it the power to inspect ships on the high seas and if necessary divert the ship.

The episode highlights the risk in allowing Greece to take a prominent role in the EU’s arms embargo enforcement since Greece is not seen by Turkey as a neutral party, but instead an opponent of the Turkish-GNA alliance that has swung the civil war away from Haftar over the last month.

Greece has angrily rejected a Turkish claim to exclusive drilling rights in the Mediterranean, and formally asked for Turkish behaviour to be on the agenda of Monday’s meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers.

Greece signed a rival exclusive drilling agreement with Italy in the Ionian Sea on Tuesday, showing how the Libyan conflict has spilled into the wider Mediterranean.

Trump’s surprise intervention came in a phone call to the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

The Trump administration has been largely disengaged from Libya, but the lack of interest appears to have ended when the US military command in Africa warned that Russia, which supports Haftar, was pouring fighter planes into the country, and possibly seeking to establish a permanent airbase.

Trump also spoke to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on Sunday. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said: “Quick and good-faith negotiations are now required to implement a ceasefire and relaunch the UN-led intra-Libyan political talks.” The US is anxious to ensure that Cairo does not send its own troops over the border into Libya.

European diplomats are hoping that Haftar’s military reverses will lead to resumption of political talks agreed in principle in Berlin in January, since Haftar’s hopes of capturing Tripoli by force have been crushed.

Some diplomats also hope Haftar’s influence over the political process might be diminished. The German ambassador to Libya met Haftar on Wednesday, suggesting the unpredictable 76-year-old leader has not yet been dismissed by the EU as an interlocutor.

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