Powers gather to discuss mounting ISIS threat in Libya
16 May 2016, 10:30
Vienna – Major powers were gathering in the
Austrian capital on Monday to discuss the expanding presence of the Islamic
State jihadist group in Libya, just across the Mediterranean from Europe.
A government of national unity strongly backed by
the international community has been slowly asserting its authority in Tripoli
since late March but it still faces a rival administration in the east.
The conference is being co-chaired by the United
States and Italy, Libya's former colonial ruler which has faced a major influx
of migrants from the North African nation braving the perilous sea voyage.
It will "discuss international support for the
new Government of National Accord, with a focus on security," said John
Kirby, spokesperson for US Secretary of State John Kerry, who will chair the
conference with his Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni.
"A common effort is needed to help the process
of bringing stability to Libya," Gentiloni said.
Libya plunged into chaos after the 2011 NATO-backed
uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi, with rival
militias vying to control the oil-rich country.
The Government of National Accord headed by
businessman Fayez al-Sarraj has won international support to help unite the
divided country, but still faces stiff resistance at home.
It has failed to get the endorsement of the elected
parliament and its ally Khalifa Haftar, a self-declared army chief who has
launched a crusade against Islamist fighters across the country.
A rival Tripoli-based government has also refused
to recognise the GNA, although the unity government has garnered support from
key institutions like the central bank and the National Oil Corporation.
Amid the chaos, the Islamic State group has carved
itself a bastion in Libya where it overran last year the Mediterranean coastal
city of Sirte, Kadhafi's hometown, transforming it into a training camp for
militants from across the region and beyond.
Europe fears the jihadists, who have in recent
weeks made new advances, will use Sirte's port and airport as a springboard to
launch attacks on the continent.
This week, a British parliamentary report said an
EU naval mission to combat people trafficking off the Libyan coast is
The concerns have struck a chord with Washington,
where officials and diplomats say plans are being drawn up to loosen a ban on
arms exports to Libya imposed five years ago by the United Nations.
A senior US administration official has told AFP
that Libya's international partners are willing to help, if the GNA draws up a
"detailed and coherent list" of what it needs to fight ISIS.
"There is a very healthy desire inside of
Libya to rid themselves of ISIL, and I think that is something we should be
supporting and responding to," the official said, using an alternative
acronym for ISIS.
Kerry will discuss the proposal in Vienna, but
diplomats have warned that the GNA may struggle to come with a concrete request
Libya's divisions have deepened in recent days,
with the GNA and Haftar forces each announcing plans to fight ISIS and
"This is a mistake. It must be prevented... we
can no longer accept this division," said Nicola Latorre, chairperson of
the defence committee of the Italian senate and an ISIS expert.
He said Haftar's bid to take on ISIS alone would
undermine the Sarraj government, adding that the Vienna talks could help unite
ranks and maybe lead to the creation of an international contact group on
Claudia Gazzini, senior analyst on Libya for the
International Crisis Group, has also warned that the race for Sirte is pushing
any hope of a political solution in Libya further away.
ISIS is estimated to have around 5 000 fighters in
Libya, and it is trying to enlist hundreds more.
This month the jihadists launched suicide attacks
on key checkpoints in government-held territory along the Mediterranean coast.
This allowed them to build a defensive line along
part of the coastal highway that links the east of Libya where Haftar is based
with Tripoli in the west.
The Vienna talks are also expected to discuss the
flow of illegal immigrants from Libya to Europe, after a damning report from
the British parliament suggested that EU naval mission Operation Sophia had
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has said
she will discuss extending the operation for another year from June.