(Adds protest in Benghazi, French foreign minister, statement from Tripoli brigade)
BENGHAZI, Libya, March 18 (Reuters) - Libya’s eastern government said on Friday moves to impose a new U.N.-backed unity cabinet on the country without a vote of approval by the eastern parliament risked deepening the nation’s crisis.
The unity government-in-waiting has called for an immediate transfer of power, and its prime minister said in an interview broadcast on Thursday that it would move to Tripoli from Tunis in the “next few days”.
Since 2014 Libya has had rival parliaments and governments, one set based in Tripoli and the other in the east. Both are backed by loose alliances of former rebels and armed brigades which emerged amid the chaos that followed the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi five years ago.
Western governments have been pushing for the unity government to start work, saying it holds the best hope for ending Libya’s turmoil and tackling the growing threat posed by Islamic State militants.
The eastern government said in a statement on Friday that while it supported the unity cabinet, any attempt to impose it represented an “abuse of Libyan sovereignty and a lack of respect for the democratic process”.
“It will deepen the Libyan crisis and the economic situation, increase division, and shatter the political accord built on consensus,” it said.
It also warned local and international parties to work with the new government only after parliament gave its approval.
In eastern Benghazi on Friday, at least 500 people turned out at a demonstration against the new government and in support of the army, which has made major advances against Islamist groups in the city in recent weeks.
One reason for deadlock over the unity government is the demand from some in the east that the army there and its commander, Khalifa Haftar, should not be sidelined in a political transition.
The internationally-recognised eastern parliament has repeatedly failed to vote to approve the unity government, but a majority of its members signed a statement of support last month.
The United States and European powers cited that statement when they declared on Sunday that the unity cabinet was the “only legitimate government in Libya”.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he had told Libyan Prime Minister-designate Fayez Seraj at a meeting in Tunis on Friday that France was “ready to offer help for the security of the government”.
But a Western diplomat said there was no immediate plan for foreign military advisors to help the new government set up in Tripoli.
The unity government and the Tunis-based presidential council that appointed it have faced stiff opposition from hardliners on both sides of Libya’s political divide.
On Tuesday, the prime minister of the government based in Tripoli warned the unity cabinet not to move there. On Thursday, one of the many armed factions in the capital, the Libya Revolutionaries, said it was prepared for a “long war” in Tripoli if other groups tried to protect the unity government.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Tunis; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Andrew Roche and Catherine Evans
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.