Tunisian president in Libya for talks with new unity govt

Tunisian President Kais Saied (L) meets with Libya's new interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, in the Libyan capital Tripoli, on March 17, 2021
Tunisian President Kais Saied (L) meets with Libya's new interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, in the Libyan capital Tripoli, on March 17, 2021 - AFP
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Tripoli (AFP)

Tunisian President Kais Saied on Wednesday visited neighbouring Libya, where a UN-backed unity government is seeking to restore stability after a decade of violence and division.

The first such visit since 2012, Saied's trip aims to show "Tunisia's support for the democratic process in Libya" and for greater "stability and prosperity", his office said.

Libya descended into chaos as dictator Moamer Kadhafi was toppled and killed in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 and an array of armed groups battled to fill the void.

The turmoil has also impacted Tunisia, sharply reducing cross-border trade and turning Libya into a launchpad for a series of bloody jihadist attacks in Tunisia.

On Wednesday, Saied was welcomed at the airport by Mohamed al-Manfi, head of a new three-member presidency council, who hailed the visit as "historic".

The pair discussed reviving bilateral agreements and trade, strengthening investment and facilitating dealings between their central banks, according to a Tunisian presidency statement.

Saied later met Libya's new interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who was sworn in on Monday and is tasked with governing until December elections.

Discussions focused on reinforcing ties in a variety of areas, "in particular the economy, health, transport and education", according to the Tunisian presidency.

Saied also called for "intensifying efforts" to discover the fate of Tunisian journalists Sofiene Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari, who went missing in 2014 in Libya's Ajdabiya region.

Libya's new transitional executive emerged from a complex UN-sponsored process launched in November in Tunis. Its members were selected in Geneva then confirmed by Libya's parliament on March 10.

Saied, who has made few official trips since his election in October 2019, only announced his visit on Tuesday, the day the new government was formally launched.

He was joined by Tunisian Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi and top Saied adviser Nadia Akacha.

Before 2011, oil-rich Libya was a major customer for Tunisian farm produce and building materials as well as migrant labour.

But repeated border closures over conflict and more recently the coronavirus pandemic have battered Tunisia's crucial informal economy.

Libya was in recent years split between a Government of National Accord in Tripoli, and an eastern-based administration, backed by strongman Khalifa Haftar.

The two sides reached a ceasefire in October.

While the GNA has been backed by Turkey and Qatar, Haftar has received support from the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt.

Thousands of foreign fighters and mercenaries remain in the country.

Tunisia's successive governments have carefully avoided taking sides, while opposing all foreign interference in Libya.