SKHIRATE, Morocco (Reuters) - Libya’s warring factions held United Nations-backed talks on Thursday in an effort to end a conflict between two rival governments that threatens to drive the country into full-blown civil war.
Air strikes between rival forces intensified before Thursday’s negotiations on Libya, where Western governments worry spreading chaos is allowing Islamist militants to gain ground in a threat to mainland Europe across the Mediterranean.
The internationally-recognized government and elected House of Representatives have had to operate out of the east of the north African oil state since an armed alliance known as Libya Dawn took over the capital Tripoli and set up its own self-declared government last year.
Both centers of power are backed by heavily-armed alliances of former rebels who fought together to oust Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but later fell out in a battle for control of oil wealth.
Western officials see the U.N. talks in Morocco as the only hope of forming a unity government and halting the fighting. But previous talks have yielded little.
“There is a sense, of, if it’s not optimism, at least a sense that it is possible to make a deal, and that is something very important because in the last months, this was not the case,” U.N. envoy Bernardino Leon told reporters after the first session.
Delegates at the talks in the coastal town of Skhirate near Rabat met separately with the United Nations mediators. The talks agenda includes a unity government and security.
Tripoli representatives said one delicate point would be the role of Khalifa Haftar, a former Gaddafi ally, who last year began his own military campaign against Islamist militants in Benghazi. He is now the recognized government’s army chief. Critics in Tripoli call him a war criminal.
Libya’s North African neighbors are also concerned about spillover and the growing threat of Islamist militants claiming allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Just before the Morocco talks, Libyan forces from the recognized government said they would halt air strikes for three days.
Warplanes from both factions have for three days hit Tripoli’s Maitiga, oil ports in the east and an airport in the western down of Zintan, but without causing major damage.
A security source in Maitiga airport said an air strike around midday had lightly wounded an employee of Almaha company, which operates flights to Al-Buri oilfield.
The OPEC state declared force majeure and halted production at 11 oilfields late on Wednesday because of deteriorating security after Islamist fighters overran the Bahi and Mabrouk fields in the central Sirte basin.
Fighting had already closed two main oil ports, Ras Lanuf and Es Sidra, leaving Libya’s production at around 400,000 barrels per day, less than half the 1.6 million bpd it produced before the NATO-backed war that ousted Gaddafi.
Most diplomats and foreign companies pulled out of Libya last summer when fighting escalated and Libya Dawn, an alliance of former rebel brigades mostly loyal to Misrata city, including some Islamist brigades, took over the capital.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli and Ayman Al-Warfalli in Benghazi and Lamine Chikhi in Algiers; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Andrew Roche