PARIS (Reuters) – Some 300 foreign mercenaries have left eastern Libya, France’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday, hailing the start of a phased withdrawal of thousands of foreign forces that have fought on both sides of the conflict in the North African country.
The move, initially announced in November by Libya’s eastern-backed forces, was intended to stimulate a U.N.-backed agreement struck between the warring sides in the conflict through a joint military commission.
“This first withdrawal has taken place, which constitutes a positive first signal after the Nov. 12 conference,” Foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre said, referring to a Paris meeting that was aimed at breaking the deadlock in Libya.
“It must now be followed up with the implementation as quickly as possible of a complete process for the withdrawal of mercenaries, foreign fighters and foreign forces.”
She did not say when the mercenaries had left or where they were from. Diplomats have said the departing mercenaries were from neighbouring Chad.
The withdrawal comes after efforts to lead Libya into elections at the end of December were thrown into disarray when the country’s electoral commission said a vote could not take place, citing what it called inadequacies in the electoral legislation and the judicial appeals process.
A ceasefire agreed in 2020 in Geneva had already called for the removal of all foreign forces and mercenaries in January 2021 and that call was echoed during the Paris conference.
Mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group are entrenched alongside the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), which was supported in the war by Moscow, along with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Turkey sent troops to support the Tripoli government.
Both sides in Libya’s conflict have extensively deployed mercenaries according to U.N. experts, including from Chad, Sudan and Syria.
(Reporting by John Irish, Editing by Timothy Heritage)