Libya PM unaware of Russia, Turkey deal on foreign fighters

NEW YORK, July 16 (Reuters) - Libya's unity government Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah said on Friday he was unaware of any understanding between Russia and Turkey on a withdrawal of their foreign fighters, but that such a move would be welcomed.

Speaking to Reuters in New York, Dbeibah also said he was committed to holding elections on Dec. 24, but warned that some lawmakers may be reluctant to give up power. Dbeibah, a businessman appointed interim prime minister in February, said he has not yet decided whether to run for office.

Libya has had little stability since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, then head of state. A U.N.-led peace process brought a ceasefire last summer, after fighting between rival factions paused, and then a unity government.

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Following a U.N.-backed conference in Berlin last month, German and U.S. officials said Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Libya, reached an initial understanding on a step-by-step withdrawal of their foreign fighters.

"I have not heard of this agreement regarding the withdrawal of fighters. But we welcome any agreement ... and we welcome the exit of any forces, fighters or mercenaries with any support from any party," Dbeibah said. "We are talking with all parties regarding the withdrawal of foreign forces from Libya."

U.N. sanctions monitors have reported that thousands of Syrians had been fighting in Libya either alongside unity government troops - who were also advised by Turkish troops - or with Russia's Wagner group in support of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA).

Under the ceasefire reached last October, all foreign fighters were supposed to have left Libya by January.

Russia's deputy U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy told the Security Council on Thursday that Moscow supported a "step-by-step phased withdrawal of all foreign forces and contingents."

"At the same time, we need to make sure that the current balance of forces on the ground not be disrupted, because it is thanks to this balance that the situation in Libya remains calm and no threats of armed escalation emerge," Polyanskiy added.

Addressing the Security Council, Dbeibah said the continued presence of foreign fighters poses "a real and serious risk to the current political process and it also threatens the efforts to continue the ceasefire" and to uniting the army in Libya.

Dbeibah told Reuters it would be "very difficult" to unify Libya's military. U.N. special envoy for Libya, Jan Kubis, said on Thursday that the LNA has not allowed Dbeibah's unity government to take control of the area it commands.

"Of course, communicating with Haftar, he is a difficult military person, but we communicate with him. But things are not easy," Dbeibah said during an interview at Libya's U.N. mission.

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Reporting by Michelle Nichols and Ahmed Elumami; Writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Will Dunham

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