Italian FM visits Libya in boost to UN-backed government

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

TRIOPLI, Libya (AP) — Italy's foreign minister arrived in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on Tuesday in a show of support for a U.N.-backed unity government that Western nations hope can unite the oil-rich country and lead the fight against a powerful Islamic State affiliate.

Paolo Gentiloni is the first European official to visit Libya since the head of the unity government arrived in Tripoli by sea late last month after a rival government backed by Islamists prevented him from landing at the airport. That government resigned a week later, but a third rival government is still based in Libya's far east.

Libya slid into chaos after the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed dictator Moammar Gadhafi, with an array of militias, including extremist groups, carving out fiefdoms across the country and backing rival authorities. The chaos allowed IS and other extremist groups to take root, and transformed Libya into a major conduit for illegal migration to Europe.

Western nations now hope that a unity government led by Fayez Serraj, a little-known technocrat, can bring Libya together and combat a local IS branch that has seized the central city of Sirte.

"We are strongly committed to support the new government and the presidency council," Gentiloni said after meeting with Serraj, adding that "many of my colleagues" will visit Libya "in the near future."

"The first message should be that the Libyan people and the Libyan government should be the one leading the activity against Daesh," Gentiloni said, using an Arabic language acronym for the militant group. "We are ready to cooperate," he added.

He said diplomats are discussing the reopening of missions in the capital, which were shuttered in 2014 amid heavy fighting between rival militias. Those battles left Tripoli in the hands of the Islamist-backed authorities and forced the internationally recognized government to relocate to the east.

Mohammad Shoaib, first vice president of the Libyan parliament that convenes in the east, told The Associated Press that the assembly there will meet on April 18 to decide whether to endorse Serraj's government. The unity government would be able to convene in Tripoli once it has the parliament's endorsement.

The lawmakers rejected an earlier attempt by Serraj to form a government.

The establishment of a unity government in Tripoli with international legitimacy would pave the way for the lifting of an arms embargo, allowing Western nations to provide weapons and other support to Libyan forces battling extremists.

However, the government still has a long way to go as it is facing mounting security and political challenges linked to difficulties in imposing its control over state institutions and militias.

The U.N. envoy to Libya Martin Kobler told reporters in Berlin on Monday that in his opinion, it's unrealistic to expect a functioning agreement between the European Union and Libya in the short term.

"The unity government right now exists only no paper," he said, the German news agency DPA reported. He added that it had very little ability to conduct negotiations at the moment.

Tripoli militias largely support Serraj but here are no plans yet to integrate them into a unified army and police — a task that Libya's successive transitional governments have failed in.

The chaos permeating the country has also shut most of Libya's oil facilities and terminals. The Islamic State has also targeted the oil fields in its attacks, setting several ablaze. On Tuesday, the al-Waha oil field, one of the country's biggest, evacuated its workers after vehicles flying the Islamic State group's black banner were seen nearby.

During Gadhafi's rule, Libya produced 1.6 million barrels per day. That plunged as low as 200,000 in 2014 and had slowly been building back up to about 430,000 last year. But since an IS attack on oil storage tanks in January, production has dropped again to about 350,000 barrels a day.

Oil is the country's main source of revenues. The sharp decline of oil exports has quickly eroded the country's foreign reserves.