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 that 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, spokesman 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 recognize the GNA, although the unity government has garnered support from key institutions like the central bank and the National Oil Corp.
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 “failing.”
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 Agence France-Presse 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 IS.
“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 IS.
Kerry will discuss the proposal in Vienna, but diplomats have warned that the GNA may struggle to come with a concrete request for help.
Libya’s divisions have deepened in recent days, with the GNA and Haftar forces each announcing plans to fight IS and “liberate” Sirte.
“This is a mistake. It must be prevented… we can no longer accept this division,” said Nicola Latorre, chairman of the defense committee of the Italian senate and an IS expert.
He said Haftar’s bid to take on IS 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 Libya.
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.
IS 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 failed.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has said she will discuss extending the operation for another year from June.