Italian foreign minister meets new leaders in Libya, pledges support

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Italy’s foreign minister made a flying visit to Tripoli on Tuesday to meet Libya’s U.N.-backed unity government, pledging broad international support as the new administration tries to consolidate its presence.

A member of the Presidential Council of Government of National Accord, Ahmed Maiteeq (L) and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni (C) hold a joint news conference in Tripoli, Libya, April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

Western powers hope the new government can unite Libya’s warring factions, end its political chaos and request foreign help to tackle Islamic State insurgents and migrant trafficking across the Mediterranean.

The visit by Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni was the first by a senior Western official since the arrival in Tripoli nearly two weeks ago of the unity government’s Presidential Council.

Italy, Libya’s former colonial ruler, has played a prominent role in rallying international support for the new government. After meeting the unity government’s leader Fayez Seraj, Gentiloni told reporters he believed his visit would be “a precedent that other countries will follow”.

“We are all studying and discussing the possibility of reopening our diplomatic presence here in Tripoli,” he said, though he added that no dates had yet been fixed.

Western diplomatic staff were evacuated from the Libyan capital in 2014 amid heavy fighting between rival factions.

Many moved to Tunis, where the United Nations launched a stabilisation fund for the unity government on Tuesday aimed at rebuilding infrastructure and supporting businesses to provide “very visible and tangible quick-wins to the population at the local level”.

The fund received pledges from several countries, including 10 million euros ($11.38 million) from Germany, and $2 million each from the United States, Italy and Qatar.

Gentiloni and Seraj met at the Tripoli naval base where the Presidential Council has been operating since it arrived in the Libyan capital by ship from Tunisia.

The Council has faced resistance in both Tripoli and eastern Libya, the bases for Libya’s two rival governments, and its opponents in the capital closed down the air space to prevent it from flying in.

It has so far enjoyed the support or acquiescence of most of Tripoli’s powerful armed groups, but has yet to move into ministries to start work.

Still, the Council’s decision to move to Tripoli has been a “game changer”, Gentiloni said. “We do believe that this can pave the way to the stabilisation of Libya.”

He noted, however, that the government was still establishing itself, and had yet to be approved by Libya’s internationally-recognised eastern parliament in Tobruk.

Italy made a first delivery of food aid and medical kits to the Tripoli area on Tuesday and plans to deliver assistance to hospitals in the war-torn eastern city of Benghazi, Gentiloni said.

Bilateral meetings over illegal migration, transport links and security assistance are also planned, but counter-terrorism planning should be Libyan-led, the Italian minister said.

“If and when the Libyan authorities will ask for international support on security this will be considered, it will be discussed in the Security Council of the United Nations,” he said. “It’s not something that can be decided in Rome or in London or in Washington.”

Seraj said he was confident about receiving future support from Italy and the international community, and that counter-terrorism would be a “priority”.

“We will be moving forward from protocol visits to more effective and specialised meetings,” he said.

The reopening of diplomatic missions could eventually pave the way for the return of international oil industry staff, though some of Libya’s major oil facilities have recently come under attack from Islamic State.

The unity government is meant to replace the two rival sets of governments and parliaments in Tripoli and the east. Both were backed by loose alliances of the armed factions that established themselves after the uprising that toppled the late autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

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Editing by Mark Heinrich