Tripoli government suspends operations of foreign firms

UN-backed government suspends operations of foreign firms including French energy giant Total as fighting rages in Tripoli and IS jihadists remain active in the south.

TRIPOLI - Libya's internationally recognised government has suspended the operations of 40 foreign firms including French oil major Total , a government official said on Thursday.

The ministry said that the firms' licences had expired, according to a decree that appeared online. Its authenticity was confirmed by an official in the ministry.

Ties between the internationally recognised government and France have been strained because Paris has ties to Tripoli as well as to Khalifa Haftar, a commander whose troops have been trying to take the capital in a month-long battle.

The government has struggled to exert its authority beyond the capital in a country that has lacked a centralised administration since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi by NATO-backed rebels in 2011.

Total, with large-scale oil and gas interests in Libya, is the only company on the list known to have extensive dealings there. Others include French aerospace firm Thales, German engineering firm Siemens and telecoms equipment firm Alcatel-Lucent, now owned by Finland's Nokia.

Total, the French government and the French foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Last month, the Tripoli-based interior ministry suspended security cooperation with France, accusing Paris of backing Haftar, a commander from the east of the country where a rival government holds sway.

On Wednesday, Tripoli Premier Fayez al-Serraj had visited Paris, part of a tour to European capitals to drum up support.

After meeting Serraj, President Emmanuel Macron had called for a ceasefire in the battle for Libya's capital Tripoli.

Haftar, a former general in Gaddafi's army who later turned against him, enjoys the backing of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. He also received military support from France which helped him take over the eastern city of Benghazi in 2017.

In the capital Tripoli, three rockets hit a western suburb overnight close to the heavily fortified UN compound but otherwise there was less fighting than last week as life slowed down with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The United Nations has failed to broker a ceasefire after the offensive took it by surprise. Its special envoy Ghassan Salame has mostly stayed on the ground but his mission has reduced staffing levels, UN officials say.

One senior health worker was severely wounded as he travelled in an ambulance car in a southern Tripoli district that was reportedly attacked by Haftar-affiliated fighters, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA said in a statement.

European countries including Italy and France have taken a strong interest in Libya, both because of its natural resources and because of its status as the main departure point for migrants attempting to enter Europe across the Mediterranean. European countries have backed Libyan efforts that have succeeded in reducing the numbers attempting the journey.

Two boats carrying 214 migrants were intercepted by the Libyan coast guard late on Wednesday and taken back to the shore, the UN migration agency said.

"As clashes continue in the capital, we are concerned about the return and arbitrary detention of migrants in #Libya," the International Organization for Migration said in a tweet.

IOM spokesman Joel Millman said the 107 people on the first boat included 12 women and seven children, while the 107 people on the second boat were all men, 92 of them Sudanese, and there had been no reports of missing people or bodies retrieved.

In the south, three people were killed on Thursday in a suspected hit-and-run attack by Islamic State militants on the town of Ghadwa, residents and a military official said, the second such attack within days.

Gunmen stormed the southern town and opened fire before retreating back into the desert, residents said.

The attack came after nine soldiers were killed on Saturday in an attack claimed by Islamic State on a training camp for Haftar's Libya National Army (LNA).

LNA forces took control of the south earlier this year. But Haftar has concentrated his forces in the northwest, where they have been embroiled in the month-long battle for Tripoli.

Islamic State is active in the south, having retreated there after losing its stronghold in the central city of Sirte in December 2016.