Libya, the large, strategic, oil-rich but fragmented country on the south shore of the Mediterranean has once again become the cockpit for international and regional powers struggling for control and access to its wealth and position.
General Khalifa Hafter, a military leader whose power base is in its eastern parts, intensified his assault last week on the capital Tripoli. That is the seat of its nominal government and where a UN-sponsored constitutional convention was due to meet later this month. The battle threatens to reignite a full scale civil war with potentially major consequences for surrounding states.
Libya has land borders with Egypt to the east, Sudan, Chad and Niger to the south and Algeria and Tunisia to its west. Across the Mediterranean lie Italy, its former colonial ruler, and France, which fears Libyan conflicts harbour regional forces inimical to its interests.
After Colonel Muammar Gadafy was overthrown in 2011 following a Nato intervention led by France and Britain, Libya disintegrated in regional, tribal, political and religious factions who fought for control. Several years of negotiations had brought leaders of the contending forces together, centred on the prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj, based in Tripoli. Hafter's attack on the city has stopped that initiative in its tracks.
He is effectively backed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and militarily by France, with further support from Russia and recently from the US. All support his promise to restore order against Islamic terrorism. That is a facile caricature of the political and economic interests really at stake in this conflict. Italy and most European Union states support the political process led by al-Sarraj.
All fear that renewed civil war would loosen the controls put in place – with EU support – to stop the mass migration of sub-Saharan and other refugees across the Mediterranean, which recruit local militias to create a deeply inhumane system of camps. Only renewed diplomacy can prevent this looming danger becoming much worse.