Libya unity government looks to assert authority in Tripoli

AFP , Thursday 31 Mar 2016

Fayez Serraj
Fayez Serraj, head of the UN-backed unity government meets with his team in Tripoli, Libya, Thursday, March 31, 2016. (Photo: AP)

-Libya's unity government was trying to assert its authority in Tripoli Thursday after the new prime minister-designate's sudden arrival, as the EU imposed sanctions on three Libyans for obstructing peace efforts.

Fayez al-Sarraj's arrival at a naval base on Wednesday drew fury from the militia-backed authority in charge of Tripoli, which demanded he leave or surrender.

Gunmen stormed the headquarters of a Libyan television station overnight, apparently in support of the new government, but the capital appeared calm on Thursday.

Banks and shops were open, police were posted on the streets and flights had resumed at Metiga airport after being suspended the day before "for security reasons".

"The reactions have been better than we hoped for. The situation is good," an adviser to Sarraj told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The international community hailed the new government's arrival as a crucial step in restoring order to Libya, which has been wracked by chaos since the 2011 overthrow of Moamer Kadhafi.

Formed under a power-sharing deal agreed in December, the unity government is meant to take over from rival groups running the country.

Libya has had two administrations since mid-2014 when the militia alliance overran Tripoli, setting up its own authority and forcing the internationally recognised parliament to flee to the country's remote east.

International leaders, increasingly alarmed by the rise of jihadists and people-smugglers in the impoverished North African state, have called on Libya's political rivals to back the unity government.

The United States and its European allies have threatened action against those who undermine the political process.

EU member states on Thursday agreed to impose sanctions on three Libyans for obstructing the formation of Sarraj's government.

One European source said the measures comprise "a ban on travelling in the European Union and a freeze on assets in the EU."

A European diplomatic source told AFP recently that EU sanctions would target the Tripoli government's prime minister Khalifa Ghweil, the head of the General National Congress Nuri Abu Sahmein, and Aguila Saleh, speaker of Libya's internationally recognised government.

Sarraj held talks with officials including lawmakers and local mayors on Thursday and was set to meet the governor of Libya's central bank to discuss the nation's crumbling economy.

"We have effectively started work today," the UN-backed body's vice president Moussa el-Koni told AFP.

UN envoy Martin Kobler said he was in "intensive discussions" with Tripoli-based lawmakers, tweeting that most supported Sarraj's administration.

But the prime minister-designate still faces an uphill battle as both of Libya's rival administrations have so far refused to cede power.

The Tripoli government on Wednesday insisted he leave the capital or "hand himself in".

A member of the unrecognised Tripoli authorities said lawmakers in the capital were "unanimous" that Sarraj and his entourage had entered Libya illegally.

Cracks of gunfire were heard around the capital late on Wednesday and the armed men seized control of the Al-Nabaa satellite television station in the city centre, cutting transmissions and forcing out staff. The channel is close to the Tripoli authorities.

But there were no other reports of major violence.

"I just dropped off my girl at school. Everything seems normal but we are watching very carefully in case things degenerate," said Tripoli resident Jamal, on his way to join friends at a cafe.

Sarraj's government posted on its Facebook page calling for calm and for residents "not to instigate violence and to preserve security in the capital."

Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who spoke by phone with Sarraj, said Rome would authorise urgent food and medical aid to be distributed by the new administration.

A total of 860 tonnes of aid including food and medicine for 30,000 patients would be handed out, his ministry said.

Western powers are especially worried by the growth of the Islamic State group in Libya.

The jihadist organisation has seized control of Kadhafi's coastal hometown of Sirte and launched a wave of attacks, both against rival Libyan forces and across the border in Tunisia.

Tunis on Thursday expressed hope that Sarraj's government could help tamp down the threat of extremism and secure the two countries' shared border.

The foreign ministry urged "all Libyan parties to support the unity government (in) its work to fight terrorism, secure its borders and improve the living conditions of the Libyan people".

Western countries are considering military action against the jihadists in Libya but want a unity government to request help first.

Libya has long been a stepping stone for migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, and traffickers have also exploited its instability. Some 330,000 migrants have landed in Italy from Libya since the start of 2014.

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