Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, the General Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), met in Rome yesterday with senior Italian officials to discuss bilateral cooperation on combating terrorism and illegal migration.
He had official talks with the Defence Minister, Roberta Pinotti, who reaffirmed her country’s support for Libya’s UN-led peace process and urged Mr Hifter to engage constructively with the U.N. initiative. He also met the Interior Minsiter, Marco Minniti, and the Italian Army’s Chief of Staff, General Claudio Graziano.
The visit indicates a major improvement in Italy’s relationship with the LNA. The two sides have been at loggerheads as recently as last month when Mr Hifter’s supporters took to streets in cities across Libya protesting Italy’s decision to deploy military vessels to Libya’s territorial waters. The Italian naval mission, which was aimed at curbing the flow of migrants to Italy’s shores, came after a bilateral agreement signed with Fayez Serraj, head of Libya’s UN-backed government, and Mr Hifter’s rival in western Libya.
The move drew strong criticism from LNA officials including Mr Hifter who has denounced it and accused the Italian government of “backing the wrong side in Libya”, while LNA spokesman, Ahmed al-Mesmari, threatened to “repel any naval vessel that enters [Libya’s] national waters without permission from the army”.
This shift in Italy’s foreign policy on Libya was triggered by two developments: First, the rivalry with France fuelled by Emmanuel Macron’s successful mediation between Mr Hifter and Mr Serraj which seems to have pushed the Italians to flex their political muscles as the leaders of international community’s involvement in its former North African colony.
Secondly, Mr Hifter’s influence in western Libya which threatens to undermine a recent deal between Italy and militias from Sabratha that was credited with a substantial decrease in the number of migrants arriving in Italy over the last three months.