France encourages EU to sanction Libyan politicians hindering accord government

Threat targets Libyan politicians seen as barriers to forming unity government, a precondition for western intervention against Isis

The sanctions could target figures such as Khalifa al-Ghweil (centre) of the Tripoli-based general national congress, a rival to the internationally recognised Tobruk administration. Photograph: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
The sanctions could target figures such as Khalifa al-Ghweil (centre) of the Tripoli-based general national congress, a rival to the internationally recognised Tobruk administration. Photograph: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

France is to propose that the European Union impose sanctions on Libyan politicians deemed to be obstructing the formation of a UN-backed unity government.

The move appears to be a desperate last-ditch effort to break the logjam over the formation of a government and to open the way for potential legal western intervention in Libya to drive back Islamic State. Similar threats have been made by the UN’s special envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, according to members of the Tobruk parliament.

Italy, France and the UK have been pressing since autumn 2014 for an internationally recognised government to be formed in Libya which would then invite western forces into the country to train the Libyan military to defeat Isis, guide aerial attacks and protect oil installations.

It has been repeatedly reported that special forces from Italy, France, the US and the UK are already in the country ahead of an Italian-led operation.

The British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, has been evasive on the extent to which any dispatch of UK forces would require the explicit permission of parliament. He has said Britain would not send combat troops to the region and may argue parliamentary approval is only required if they were to be involved in fighting.

The Libyan issue has been given added political force after Barack Obamacriticised David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy for failing to do more to guarantee a political settlement in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Obama’s stinging criticism, expressed in Atlantic magazine’s interview with the famously anti-interventionist president, will be deeply wounding to Cameron, even though Downing Street says it is less interested in an inquest than in resolving Libya’s political problems.

The UK foreign affairs select committee is conducting an investigation into the reasons for the political, military and diplomatic failure in Libya after the intervention, including the Foreign Office’s knowledge of the forces that were likely to succeed Gaddafi.

In a bid to end the impasse, the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said of the current Libyan leadership: “I do not exclude threatening them with sanctions. In any case, that is what I will propose to my foreign affairs colleagues on Monday in Brussels.”

“Now, we can wait no longer,” he added, denouncing those who “put themselves in the way out of self-interest. We have to fight Daesh [Isis] where it is trying to develop in Libya, but the precondition is the constitution of a new national unity government,” Ayrault told i-Télé.

The issue was discussed at an Anglo-Italian summit in Venice at the beginning of the week, and is likely to be raised at a foreign ministers’ meeting with John Kerry, the US secretary of state, in Paris on Sunday.

The sanctions would likely consist of travel bans to the EU and asset freezes, and target the speaker of Libya’s internationally recognised parliament, Aguila Saleh Issa, as well as Nuri Abu Sahmain and Khalifa al-Ghweil of the Tripoli-based general national congress.

Libya has had rival parliaments and governments since 2014, after an Islamist-led militia alliance overran Tripoli and forced the internationally recognised administration to flee to the remote east of the oil-rich nation.

Extremists including Isis have exploited the chaos, raising fears of jihadis using the Libyan coast as a launchpad to infiltrate neighbouring Tunisia and initiate attacks. Isis is strongest in the port town of Sirte, and the west fears the jihadis are using Libya as a base to destabilise northern Africa.

The travel bans would be limited to a small number of politicians perceived to be acting as barriers to the formation of a government.

A UN-backed national unity government, headed by Fayez Sarraj, was proposed in January but rejected by the internationally recognised parliament.

The parliament, located in the remote eastern town of Tobruk, has since said it does support the unity government but was unable to hold a confidence vote on the lineup of a new administration because it lacked a quorum. There has also been disagreement about the number and allocation of ministers.

“There is a prime minister, Mr Sarraj, who is capable of directing (a unity government). A majority of MPs say they are in favour but the parliament cannot find a consensus because of barriers,” said Ayrault.

“We cannot continue with this situation that is a danger for Libyans, for the whole region … and for Europe,” he added.

“We must fight Islamic State where it is trying to establish a foothold in Libya but before that a national unity government needs to be established.”

France, backed by Britain, needs to build support for the sanctions among other EU members. Many countries including Greece are reticent to vote on sanctions that have not been proposed by the UN. Some fear it will have little practical impact and merely entrench positions.

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