The rival Libyan leaders holding Paris talks

The rival Libyan leaders holding Paris talks

Tripoli (AFP) - Libya's UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and military strongman rival Khalifa Haftar are set to meet near Paris on Tuesday for talks aimed at easing tensions in their violence-wracked country.

It is their first encounter since a rare meeting in Abu Dhabi in May.

The talks come as Europe struggles to secure a political settlement in Libya after years of chaos since the NATO-backed uprising that ousted and killed veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

Here are profiles of the two men, whose rivalry has hampered a political solution for the North African country, bedevilled by jihadism and people smuggling.

- Sarraj: struggling for authority -

Sarraj was a political novice when he took up the premiership of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and has struggled to assert his authority since it set up base in Tripoli last year.

The 57-year-old was born into a prominent family that owned a bookshop and stationery store in downtown Tripoli as well as swathes of land around the capital.

A trained architect, Sarraj, who has jet black hair and a white moustache, had a long career in the public sector alongside his business interests.

He is married to an architect and they have three daughters.

Sarraj was well into his 50s when he entered politics, following in the footsteps of his father Mostafa al-Sarraj, a member of parliament and cabinet minister under the Western-backed king Idriss, who was deposed in 1969 by Kadhafi.

Sarraj was elected to parliament in June 2014 but he and fellow lawmakers fled to the eastern city of Tobruk after a militia alliance overran Tripoli and established a rival administration.

Two years later and after months of arduous negotiations, the United Nations brokered a power-sharing deal under which Sarraj was designated prime minister.

In March 2016, Sarraj installed the GNA in Tripoli, intending to replace a rival eastern-based administration backed by Haftar.

But his efforts to impose his authority continue to be blocked by his rival.

The UN-backed government was the centrepiece of Western efforts to stem an upsurge of jihadism in Libya and halt people trafficking across the Mediterranean, which has led to thousands of drownings.

From the start of his premiership, analysts said Sarraj's political stature was fragile, but those close to him have described him as "calm and level-headed", saying he is firm and speaks his mind.

In a key victory, GNA forces fought and routed the Islamic State group in the coastal city of Sirte in December 2016, more than a year after the jihadists seized Kadhafi's hometown.

In mid-July, Sarraj announced a new political roadmap for Libya with presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in March 2018.

"The time has come for unity and the rescuing of our nation," he said. But he sounded tired and spoke haltingly as he delivered the televised speech.

- Haftar: divisive strongman -

The 73-year-old Haftar heads the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, which has been battling jihadists and other Islamists in Libya since the end of the 2011 uprising.

Haftar presents himself as Libya's saviour in the face of a jihadist threat but is himself a hugely divisive figure.

The white-haired field marshal with striking black eyebrows received military training in the then Soviet Union and took part in the 1969 coup which brought Kadhafi to power.

He served in Kadhafi's armed forces but fell from grace when he was captured by Chadian troops during Libya's ill-fated 1978-1987 war with its neighbour.

Tripoli denied Haftar was part of the Libyan army, and he languished in jail until Washington granted him political asylum.

After more than two decades living in the United States, where it was rumoured that he worked for the CIA, in 2011 he returned home to take part in the NATO-backed uprising against Kadhafi.

Three years after the start of the revolution, he declared war on jihadists in second city Benghazi and in July his forces declared victory.

His rivals accuse him of wanting to set up a military government.

He refuses to recognise Sarraj's government and backs the rival administration in the east.

His forces have repeatedly clashed with militias loyal to the Tripoli government, seizing the main eastern oil ports before handing them back to the authorities and overrunning much of the south.