Migration needs a civilian not a military solution, and bombing boats off Libyan coasts will solve nothing because smugglers will simply shift location and find new boats, Tripoli mayor Mahdi Al-Harati said yesterday.

In an interview with Times of Malta at the end of a brief visit to the island over the weekend, Mr Al-Harati insisted that Europe should engage with Tripoli’s authorities to enhance cooperation and provide assistance to Libya’s struggling security forces and border patrol agencies.

Any plan by Europe to bomb coastal areas would be “criminal”. “Children and women live in these areas. But even if they target the boats alone, what will it solve?

“The smugglers will shift their business elsewhere.

“What we need is cooperation and coordination between the coastguard operating in Libya and the authorities in Europe. Why can we not start solving this problem in a civilian way?” he said.

Ultimately, however, Europe should be looking at the drivers of the phenomenon, he said.

“Why do migrants want to come here? That is what you need to ask yourselves. They come for justice, the economy, safety. They want a future; you offer migrants these things in Libya and in their own countries and they will stay there,” he said, stressing that a military solution was no option.

The peace message jars a little with the image of the 42-year-old so-called warrior mayor who led the battalion that took Tripoli from Muammar Gaddafi in August 2011 and who is accused by different detractors of being both a terrorist-sympathiser and a CIA asset.

Malta urged to play bigger role in peace process, bring sides together

He puts that image down to media hype and deliberate misrepresentation.

“I was never a military man. I became involved in a big way in the revolution because there was injustice in Libya and in another Arab country [he was also involved in the fight against Bashar Al-Assad in Syria for some time]. Now I am back to being a civilian. When I speak to people, I speak to them in my civilian role,” he says.

His mantra throughout the interview is an emphasis on development as a means to solve problems. Even when thinking of solutions to immigration, he points out, development is key.

“I made proposals to this effect in Geneva and Brussels during meetings for Libya’s mayors. We need to resolve the problem at source in the sending countries but also in the south of Libya. This is a really poor area. They have no water, no electricity and people cannot live in these situations. That is how to tackle the problem and not a military attack,” he insists.

His argument is that when people are deprived of basic needs they will turn to activities like smuggling to make ends meet. It will probably not kill the problem on its own but development will go a long way, he argues.

The same applies to the more general Libyan situation.

“As a municipality, Tripoli is working hard for dialogue between the two governments to work. But the economy brings stability faster than anything else. People in the community need support to get on with their lives, and they cannot wait for politicians to resolve their problems. They want the support now and, as mayor, I feel it is my job to give them that support.”

This is a really poor area. They have no water, no electricity and people cannot live in these situations. [Development]is how to tackle the problem and not a military attack

His argument, again, is that a stagnant economy and lack of services will foment insecurity. “This is why we’ve been working hard to deliver services but we need the international community’s help,” he says.

Europe only recognises the Tobruk government in the east as being legitimate, which means that the rival executive in Tripoli has been struggling to even make informal contact with the EU member states.

Asked about the peace process, which took another knock when the Tripoli side rejected a draft plan proposed by UN special envoy Bernardino Leon, Mr Al-Harati says he was always hopeful that there would be a peaceful resolution.

“There is no other solution but a peaceful one. A military option will not work,” he warns.

At the same time, he draws the red line often drawn by the people in his camp, which is that the east’s strongman, Khalifa Haftar, should have no place in a government of unity or the country’s military.

When it is pointed out that many people would say the same of him, he replies: “I am in a completely different position. First of all, I am elected directly by the people and I am elected in the capital city, not in some village somewhere. Secondly, I was a leader in the revolution and when Tripoli was free, I resigned. I wasn’t looking for power.”

“This is not about Haftar or about Harati, this is about what system we want.

“Do the Libyans want Libya to be built with Haftar’s system, with fighting, militias and military solutions, and God only knows when this will finish? Or do they want a democratic State that runs irrespective of who leads the government? If my country is in that state, I don’t want to be in any position. And I don’t want to be in any position unless I am elected.”

Does he harbour any ambitions to form part in a future national unity government?

He again refers to the democratic process: “Only if the people want me and I am democratically elected,” is his reply.

Before ending the interview, Mr Al-Harati is keen to send Malta a message.

“Libya and the Libyans are very grateful for everything Malta and the Maltese did during the Libyan revolution and even after, assisting us with injured people,” he notes.

However, he urges the island to play a bigger role in the peace process, particularly in bringing the Libyan mayors together as was done already twice by the United Nations.

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