Italy foreign minister visits Libya in 'show of confidence'

Italy foreign minister visits Libya in 'show of confidence'
Paolo Gentiloni is the first Western official to visit Libya since the announcement of the new head for the unity government.
4 min read
12 April, 2016
The visit marks the first from a Western official since Fayez Serraj was instated [Getty]
Italy's foreign minister arrived in Tripoli on Tuesday, marking the first visit by a European official to Libya since the head of a UN-backed unity government took up residence in the capital.

Paolo Gentiloni was received by the head of the unity government, Fayez Serraj, whose Western backers expect to both unite the conflict-ridden nation and battle the Islamic State group's local franchise.

The visit is seen as a vote of confidence in Serraj, who arrived in Tripoli via sea last month to head the government.

Serraj was prevented from landing at the airport by a rival government backed by Islamists - the government resigned a week later.

A third rival government is based in Libya's far east.

Mohammad Shoaib, first vice-president of the Libyan parliament that convenes in the east, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the assembly was expected to 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.

Earlier attempts by Serraj to form a government were rejected.

   What's been going on in Libya?

The General National Congress was the Islamist-led elected body ruling Libya for two years following Gaddafi's ousting and death. After its 18-month deadline to form a new constitution passed in January 2014, the body resolved to extend its mandate.

General Khalifa Haftar, a senior figure in the forces that toppled Gaddafi, called on the GNC to disband. In May, Haftar led troops against Islamist militias in Benghazi and the GNC in Tripoli in an offensive named Operation Dignity.

Amid the chaos, an election was held to form the House of Representatives, which took power from the GNC in August. With rival militias ruling Libya's streets, the election turnout was just 18 percent. Islamist militias then launched Operation Libya Dawn to fight Haftar's troops.

With the lack of security in the capital, the House of Representatives hired a Greek car ferry harboured in the eastern city of Tobruk as a temporary legislature. 

In late August, a group of GNC members reconvened in Tripoli and claimed legislative authority over the country, effectively replacing the House of Representatives as Libya's parliament. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives remained the internationally recognised government, though its actual authority on the ground in Libya was limited.

Libya's Supreme Court, based in Islamist-held Tripoli, ruled in November that the formation of the House of Representatives was unconstitutional, legally dissolving the Tobruk-based legislature and nullifying its decisions.

The Tobruk-based parliament refused to accept the court's ruling, saying it was made "at gunpoint". 

Libya became torn between the rival parliaments and the heavily armed militias that support each. Allegiances between the militias changed frequently, which only added to the instability, violence and danger faced by ordinary Libyan citizens.

Efforts by the UN to establish a "unity government" has led to a third administration, this one led by Fayez Sarraj, claiming overall political legitimacy for the country and setting up shop in Tripoli in late March 2016. The much-aniticipated chaos subsequently failed to materialise, as Sarraj faces the task of strengthening his mandate through popular acceptance and working towards an end to the violence and insecurity plaguing the country.

The United States and European countries, including Italy - which colonised Libya a century ago - anticipate the unity government may gather the fragmented pieces of Libya's factions, after months of UN-brokered negotiations to form the administration.

Last week, the head of US forces in Africa warned the number of IS fighters in Libya had doubled to as many as 6,000 in as little as a year.

IS has exploited the turmoil in Libya since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi five years ago, raising fears that it is establishing a new stronghold on Europe's doorstep.

Last year IS militants seized control of Gaddafi's coastal hometown of Sirte and has been fighting to expand to other areas.

US General David Rodriguez said that Libyan militias "are contesting the growth of [IS] in several areas across Libya".

"In the east, in Benghazi and Derna, they have fought back against the Islamic State and made it much tougher for them to operate."

Libya slid into chaos after the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed Muammar Gaddafi, with an array of militias, including extremist groups, carving out fiefdoms across the oil-rich country and backing rival authorities.