WASHINGTON A top Libyan official urged U.S. companies on Monday to help create jobs for former rebel fighters who still have not laid down their guns, by making investments that could transform the country into a peaceful tourist destination.
"These young people, they need challenges. They need jobs. As long they have no jobs, they're going to have Kalashnikovs and they're going to be in the streets, probably creating check points," Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur told the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC) in Washington.
In a fresh challenge on Monday to the interim Libyan government's authority, members of a Libyan militia known as the al-Awfea Brigade occupied Tripoli's international airport to demand the release of their leader, who they said was being held by Tripoli's security forces.
The militia action forced the cancellation of several international flights just as a NUSACC-led trade mission was due to arrive in the country for meetings beginning on Thursday in Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata.
While Abushagur did not directly address the situation at Tripoli airport, he sought to reassure the Washington-based business group that Libya was making progress on the many security challenges it faces following last year's war that toppled Muammar Gaddafi after 42 years.
He also told the business representatives Libya was "ahead of schedule" in restoring oil production and had already reached 90 percent of pre-revolution levels.
Abushagur said Libya had massive investment needs in sectors such as infrastructure, telecommunications and health after four decades of neglect and the recent war.
"Our economy is based on one thing: pumping oil from the ground. We need to change that," he said adding that the aim was that in 10 years time, oil should account for only 30 to 40 percent of the economy, instead of roughly 70 percent now.
Abushagur said he saw lots of opportunity for Libya in areas such as tourism, mining and knowledge-based industries.
NUSACC is also targeting these sectors for its upcoming trade mission, along with agribusiness; architecture and design; automotive services and equipment; construction and engineering; defense and security; oil and gas and water and wastewater.
Another major challenge facing Libya is securing its borders from its poorer neighbors, Abushagur said.
He said most economic refugees from Africa who passed through Libya were seeking to reach Europe and many died during the dangerous sea crossing.
Meanwhile, many wealthy Libyans who fled the country during the civil war had yet to return, he said.
Abushagur said that Libya, as a new nation, was "very committed to human rights" and any citizen who had fled and was accused of a crime would get a fair trial if they returned.
At the same time, he said, when it came to those who "have stolen Libyan money, we are going to go after them because we believe that every dollar that belongs to Libya has to come back."