PARIS — Libyan leaders reaffirmed Friday in Paris their commitment to ensure the success of the country's political process through long-awaited elections next month, a vote that world powers hope will pull the oil-rich North African nation out of its decade-old chaos.
France hosted an international conference on Libya in the presence of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and other international and regional high-level officials.
In a statement, participants expressed their support to holding "free, fair, inclusive and credible presidential and parliamentary elections" on Dec. 24.
"We reiterate our commitment to the success of the Libyan political process," they said and added they "reject all foreign interferences in Libyan affairs."
The participants also called for the withdrawal of mercenaries and foreign forces from Libya, a s stipulated in last year's U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended fighting between the country's rival factions.
The Paris declaration comes a day after the forces headed by powerful military commander Khalifa Hifter pledged to initiate the withdrawal of the first batch of foreign fighters from areas they control. The group is expected to include 300 fighters who will return to their home countries under the supervision of the U.N. mission in Libya, the statement said.
"This is only a start, Turkey and Russia must withdraw without delay their mercenaries," French President Emmanuel Macron said.
Libya's interim leaders, Mohammad Younes Menfi, head of the presidential council and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, co-presided over the conference with France Italy and Germany.
Dbeibah stressed the importance of putting in place "real guarantees of the acceptance of the results of these elections, and for there to be penalties for those who obstruct or refuse these results."
Libya has been engulfed in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The country was for years split between rival governments — one based in the capital, Tripoli, and the other in the eastern part of the country. Each side is backed by different foreign powers and militias.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a video message said that "Libya today is closer than it has been for many years to solving its internal crisis."
"We cannot miss this opportunity," he added, warning that "any party that deliberately undermines or sabotages peace must be held accountable."
Italy's Draghi called for an electoral law to be passed urgently to ensure that the election process is fair. "There needs to be an electoral law that ... must be passed in the next few days because it's urgent if you are going to hold elections on Dec. 24th," he said at a news conference.
The long-awaited vote still faces challenges, including unresolved issues over election laws and occasional infighting among armed groups. Other obstacles include the deep rift that remains between the country's east and west and the presence of thousands of foreign fighters and troops. The U.N. has estimated that there have been at least 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries in Libya over the past few years, including Russians, Syrians, Turkish, Sudanese, and Chadians.
A leading rights group questioned Thursday whether Libyan authorities can hold free and fair elections. Human Rights Watch criticized what it said were Libya's restrictive laws that undermine freedom of speech and association, as well as the presence of armed groups accused of intimidating, attacking and detaining journalists and political activists.
"The main questions leaders at the summit should ask are: can Libyan authorities ensure an environment free of coercion, discrimination, and intimidation of voters, candidates, and political parties?" it said in a statement.
In July, the U.N. special envoy for Libya, Jan Kubis, accused "spoilers" of trying to obstruct the vote to unify the divided nation. The Security Council has warned that any individual or group undermining the electoral process could face U.N. sanctions.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said this week that the U.N. mission wants "to see an election which the Libyan people can believe in, that is credible, and that is in line with the past agreements."
Politicians and warlords in western Libya issued statements this week opposing holding the vote according to the laws ratified by the country's east-based parliament. Khaled al-Meshri, head of Tripoli-based Supreme Council of State, went further and threatened in televised comments to resort to violence to prevent Hifter, a potential frontrunner in the presidential race, from taking office if he is elected.
Libya's civil war escalated in 2019, as Hifter, who commands the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, launched an offensive to take Tripoli from armed militias loosely allied with the then U.N.-supported but weak government in the country's capital.
Hifter, allied with an east-based administration, was backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France. However, his 14-month campaign and march on Tripoli ultimately failed in June 2020, after Qatar and Turkey intensified their military support for the government in Tripoli, with the latter sending mercenaries and troops to help shore up western Libya militias.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Maggie Hyde in Cairo and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.