GENEVA (AP) — The U.N.-supported government in Libya said Tuesday it has suspended its participation in talks in Geneva aimed at salvaging a fragile ceasefire in the North African country after an attack on Tripoli’s strategic port.
The country’s warring sides had resumed their U.N.-brokered military negotiations Tuesday, but the forces of military commander Khalifa Hifter stepped up their attacks on the Libyan capital, hitting its seaport.
It appeared to be the first such attack on Tripoli’s port since Hifter’s forces besieged the city almost a year ago.
The country’s National Oil Corporation (NOC), which dominates Libya’s critical oil industry and is based in Tripoli, said projectiles struck meters away from a highly explosive liquefied petroleum gas tanker discharging in the port, prompting it to evacuate fuel vessels from the area and cancel offloading operations.
Mustafa Sanalla, head of the NOC, warned that Tripoli does not have operational fuel storage facilities because the capital’s main storage warehouse was evacuated due to the fighting.
“The consequences will be immediate: Hospitals, schools, power stations and other vital services will be disrupted,” he said in a statement.
Ghassan Salame, head of the U.N. support mission in Libya, called the port attack a “big breach” of the ceasefire.
Footage shared online showed thick, black smoke rising from the dock areas of Tripoli, supposedly from the shelling.
Oil-rich Libya is split between rival governments in its east and west, each backed by an array of foreign countries jockeying for influence in order to control Libya’s resources.
The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord said in a statement late Tuesday that it has suspended its participation in the UN-brokered talks after the Tripoli port attack, “until firm positions are taken (by the world powers) against Hifter and “the countries that support him.”
The U.N. support mission in Libya called on “all parties, especially the Libyan National Army, to desist from escalation and provocation.”
“Exercising maximum restraint and refraining from targeting civilians and vital infrastructures are crucial to the progress and the success of the three-track intra-Libyan dialogue,” the UNSMIL said.
The current ceasefire was brokered by Russia and Turkey on Jan. 12. But both sides have repeatedly violated the truce, which was supposed to deescalate the fight for control of the Libyan capital.
“We hope to be able in this second round to come to some kind of consensus about what a lasting ceasefire could look like in Libya,” Salame told reporters in Geneva.
Western Libyan forces led by Hifter rely on military assistance from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, France and Russia. On the other side, Turkey, Italy and Qatar back the U.N.-supported but weakened government that Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj leads in Tripoli.
Hifter’s forces said they’d hit a depot for weapons and ammunition at the port Tuesday “to weaken the combat capabilities of the mercenaries who arrived from Syria” to fight alongside Tripoli-based militias.
Turkish officials confirmed that Hifter’s forces had fired on a Turkish ship near the docks. Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the attack “missed its target” and Turkish forces fired back.
The U.N. support mission in Libya said five military representatives from each side have met indirectly Tuesday in Geneva, more than a week after they ended their first round of negotiations without striking a deal that would help end the fighting in Tripoli.
Salame said the talks would focus on stopping “the frequent violations of the truce,” and helping civilians displaced by the fighting return to the capital and its surrounding area.
He said further talks on handling Libya’s suffering economy would take place in March. These will focus on “very sensitive issues,” including the fairer redistribution of state revenue across divided Libya, he said.
Salame said that the two sides would hold political talks on Feb. 26 in Geneva.
Hifter met on Tuesday with the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland in the eastern city of Benghazi, the embassy and Hifter’s office said.
It was the first visit for Norland to Libya since he was named U.S. ambassador to the African country in August, embassy officials said.
The U.S. envoy said Hifter stated his “commitment to a permanent ceasefire.”
Norland said he would visit Tripoli and meet with Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj “as soon as security conditions permit.”
In the previous round of military talks, the U.N. mission said there was “broad consensus” between the two sides on the urgency of safeguarding Libyan territorial integrity and stopping “the flow of non-Libyan fighters” into the country’s war.
Recently, Ankara has sent hundreds of Syrian fighters including militants affiliated with groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State to fight on behalf of the U.N.-supported government in Libya.
The Tripoli authorities and U.S. officials have accused Hifter of relying on hundreds of Russian mercenaries. Sudanese armed groups from the Darfur region recently joined the fighting on both sides, according to a report by U.N. experts.
Powerful tribes loyal to the eastern commander Hifter have largely stopped the country’s oil production, after they seized several large oil export terminals along Libya’s eastern coast and its southern oil fields in January.
The National Oil Corporation said losses from the oil closures have reached more than $1.7 billion as of Tuesday.
The daily oil production has fallen to 123,537 barrels a day from about 1.2 million. It put the daily losses at close to $60.2 million.
Libya has the ninth-largest known oil reserves in the world and the biggest oil reserves in Africa.
The Geneva talks come amid intensified diplomacy among world powers seeking to end the war that has ravaged Libya for nine years and increasingly drawn in foreign powers.
European Union foreign ministers agreed Monday to launch a new maritime effort focused on enforcing the U.N arms embargo.
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.