Middle East

UN envoy urges rapid Libya handover as fragile peace holds

The UN envoy to Libya has urged a rapid, complete handover of power to a unity government that arrived in Tripoli a week ago, warning that a fragile peace in the city may not hold if the new government is unable to deliver.

Martin Kobler also called on Libya's internationally recognized eastern parliament on Wednesday to hold a long-sought vote on whether to approve the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), telling Reuters in an interview that the chamber risked being sidelined if it failed to do so.

Shortly after he spoke the prime minister of Tripoli's self-declared National Salvation government issued a statement calling on his ministers to stay in place. That contradicted a statement backed by some ministers on Tuesday saying the National Salvation government was stepping down.

The GNA emerged from a UN-mediated deal signed in December and aimed at resolving the political chaos that engulfed Libya after the 2011 overthrow of autocrat Muammar Gaddafi.

From 2014 the country had two pairs of rival parliaments and governments in Tripoli and the east, both backed by loose coalitions of armed brigades.

Western powers are backing the GNA as the best chance for uniting armed factions against Islamic State in Libya, stemming the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, and rescuing the economy by reviving oil production.

Kobler, who visited Tripoli on Tuesday, said a handover of power at the foreign ministry was yet to be replicated in other ministries.

"We know of ministers who are willing to hand over," he said. "But the ministers have to change, they have to peacefully hand over their power and give the new administration to the Government of National Accord."

A source close to National Salvation government head Khalifa Ghwell said his ministers were divided over whether to hand over power. He said Ghwell was still in Tripoli but no longer working out of his old office, which has been secured by an armed brigade loyal to the GNA.

Kobler said the GNA needed to be able to quickly improve economic conditions and failing health services.

"It can change tomorrow, but now it's quiet. If the government doesn't deliver, it will not stay quiet."

The GNA's leadership, or Presidential Council, has been operating out of a naval base in Tripoli, where Kobler said it was being guarded by "regular forces".

He said previously hostile militias had been persuaded to protect or tolerate the Council because both the militias and people in Tripoli wanted a "way out" from conflict and increasing economic hardship.

Armed groups

As part of efforts to win the acquiescence of Tripoli's armed groups, Kobler said he had also held meetings with figures of influence including Turkey-based former Islamist militant Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Qatar-based cleric Ali al-Sallabi, and that although he had not got concrete assurances, they were "pretty supportive".

"The popular support of the overwhelming majority of the population, this is the biggest backing for the Presidential Council," Kobler said. "But of course they don't have weapons and you need also at least to be tolerated by those who have weapons."

The UN envoy also said it was still "crucial" to secure a vote of approval for the GNA from the eastern parliament, or House of Representatives, as required by the December deal.

In February, GNA supporters in the chamber said their rivals had used physical force and threats to prevent a vote.

"Now there must be another [attempt], otherwise the House of Representatives loses importance," Kobler said, adding that he saw growing signs of support for a vote in the east.

"There is a considerable movement within the municipalities, many House of Representatives members, but also within the tribes. They really want to have progress now."

Kobler said the political process had to keep moving so a coordinated security structure could be built to tackle Islamic State, which took control of the coastal city of Sirte last year and has established a presence in other parts of Libya.

But he said it was too early to say when this could be achieved.

"The Presidential Council is in Tripoli since one week. They do not yet have their ministers in place. They do not even have the handover of the government, so this will take time."

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