Over 20 countries, including the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and Russia, have vowed to ease a five-year arms embargo on Libya to help its recently formed unity government fight the so-called Islamic State, which is in control of much of the central Libyan coastline.
Dozens of ministers from across the world, as well as representatives of the European Union and the United Nations met in Vienna on Monday to discuss to how to better support the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
They agreed to “fully support” the efforts of the GNA to loosen a UN-imposed weapons sales ban in place since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt which toppled Mummer Gaddafi.
“The Government of National Accord has voiced its intention to submit appropriate arms embargo exemption requests to the UN Libya Sanctions Committee to procure necessary lethal arms and materiel to counter UN-designated terrorist groups and to combat Da’esh throughout the country. We will fully support these efforts,” read the joint communique, signed by 21 countries, the EU, the UN, the Arab League and the African Union.
“We are ready to respond to the Libyan government’s requests for training and equipping the Presidential Guard and vetted forces from throughout Libya,” it added.
At the meeting the GNA’s Prime Minister Faiez Serraj pressed the urgency of assistance to Libyans but warned against foreign boots on the ground. “We have a major challenge facing us in fighting [IS],” he told reporters after the meeting. “We hope for assistance on training and equipping our troops.’
‘The international community and the neighbors will not be spared this danger if terrorism were to grow outside Libya… We’re not talking about international intervention; we’re talking about international assistance and training, equipping our troops and training our youth,” he told.
No one in the meeting specified what kind of weapons would be permitted.
It came amid growing chatter from America that the US would help Libya loosen the ban, fearing that with country’s port and airport, jihadists could use the Mediterranean city as a staging post for attacks on Europe. There are now thought to be some 5,000 IS fighters in Libya, holding a 250km stretch of land around the mid coastal city of Sirte.
“If the Libyan government prepares a detailed and coherent list of things that it wants to use to fight [IS] and responds to all the requirements of the exemption, I think that Council members are going to look very seriously at that request,” a senior administration official told AFP on Friday.
The GNA is the only recognised authority in Libya and “the only entity that can unify the country,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said during Monday’s meeting.
“The international community will support the [GNA] Presidency Council as it seeks exemption from the UN arms embargo to acquire those weapons and bullets needed to fight Daesh and other terrorist groups”, he told.
But Kerry also urged the joint body to quickly unify the armed factions within the country and win over the army under divisive General Khalifa Haftar.
In one of the first signs of force, the GNA announced the formation of the presidential guard a week ago – a body made up of police and army “selected in different regions of Libya” to protect government buildings, border posts, vital installations and VIPs. A military command operations room was former shortly afterwards to tackle the growing threat of IS in Sirte, the headquarters of their Libyan affiliate.
Nonetheless the GNA was created from a disputed UN-authored peace deal signed in December and has yet to secure the official backing of the parliament anchored in the eastern city of Tobruk, the House of Representatives (HoR). It has also to win over the other side in Libya’s civil war – armed coalition Libya Dawn in the west – whose hardline politicians maintain they are still the legitimate authority.
With the country split between three administrations, and with the army still loyal to Tobruk, questions have been raised over what of the GNA there is to arm.
Spokesperson for the military operations room Mohamed el-Ghasri refused to specify how many troops there were but said there several brigades.
Even the key figures present at Monday’s meeting admitted the GNA was not in control of the country.
All sides urged Serraj to ensure key institutions – including the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), National Oil Corporation (NOC), and Libyan Investment Authority (LIA),- functioned under the sole stewardship of the GNA. Since the 2014 take over of Tripoli by Dawn – the parliament and its cabinet in the east have been trying to duplicate the CBL and NOC fearing Libya Dawn had control over them as their headquarters are located in the capital.
The joint statement mentioned supporting Libya to bar “illicit oil sales” a reference to Tobruk parliament’s attempt to sell its own 650,000 barrels of oil through the eastern port of Hariga bypassing the Tripoli NOC last month. The Indian-flagged tanker was eventually put on the UN blacklist and parked in the west, where its cargo was off loaded.
The statement also mentioned people smuggling in the Mediterranean – an issue raised again by Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni wthose country bears the brunt of the arrivals. Tens of thousands of desperate mirgants or refugees take the perilous sea crossing in rickety boats hoping for a better life in Europe. Hundreds have died at sea.
The people trafficking trade – managed by both militiamen and militants -has flourished since the start of the latest civil war as the borders are open and the country was awash weapons.
Nonetheless the politicians expressed determination.
“This meeting has helped to maintain momentum to demonstrate the unity of that support,” said British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.
“I welcome prime minister Serraj and the presidency council’s commitment to tackle the important issues for the people of Libya and deliver the peace and stability they deserve,” he added.
In Libya, meanwhile, the UN-established presidency council on Monday effectively gave the go-ahead for 18 government ministers to start work, even though they have not received backing from the parliament.
On the same day the Us admitted that it was keeping small teams of Special Force sin Libya to gather intelligence.
The US military doesn’t have a “great picture” of the situation in Libya, it told
The Pentagon was forced to acknowledge in December that a team of US commandos had gone to Libya after they were kicked out the country by local forces who posted a photograph of the men on Facebook.