UK intends not to carry out airstrikes or to send troops in Libya, officials say

Forces loyal to Libya’s eastern government in clashes in Benghazi with Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia. Photograph: Reuters
Forces loyal to Libya’s eastern government in clashes in Benghazi with Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia. Photograph: Reuters

The government has said it has no plans to deploy British troops to provide security for Libya’s newly-appointed national unity government.

The denial came in response to a letter to the foreign secretary from Crispin Blunt MP, the chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, seeking a statement to parliament in advance of any military action.

Blunt had argued that the first formal move of a new Libyan government was likely to be to ask Britain and its allies to conduct airstrikes against Islamic Statetargets in the country, according to Blunt.

Isis, with strongholds in Syria and Iraq, has expanded its presence in Libya, taking over the town of Sirte and other areas, taking advantage of the absence of a government and of increasing unrest.

Blunt said that the reported deployment of UK troops as part of an Italian-led force to Libya would be a matter for the Commons and Hammond should make a statement before defence secretary Michael Fallon agreed to such a deployment.

Fallon on Tuesday held a telephone conference with the defence ministers of Italy, France, Spain and Germany about the combined force.

The 5,000-strong force – though Blunt puts it at 6,000 – would be sent to train and advise the new Libyan army. Although all five countries insist the role would not be a combat one, there is always a risk of mission creep. The Libyan government might need to be bolstered in the event of an attack or the international force might be targeted by Isis.

The Italian government is trying to build as wide a coalition as possible so if more countries were to send troops the UK contribution could end up as fewer than 1,000.

But a government spokesperson issued an unusually strong denial: “What members of the foreign affairs committee heard on their recent visit is wrong on a number of counts. There are no plans to extend airstrikes to Libya nor are there plans to send British troops to provide security on the ground in Libya. It is therefore also wrong to suggest the defence secretary will agree any UK contribution this week.”

Blunt, who last week visited Tunisia and Egypt with the rest of the committee, said the formation of a new Libyan government – the government of national accord – was announced on Saturday and “we heard that the GNA’s likely first formal action will be to request that the UK and its allies conduct airstrikes against Isil [Isis] targets in Libya”.

The Ministry of Defence says it has no such plans for airstrikes, though it insists it has the capability in spite of already being in action in Iraq and Syria.

The US is already conducting sporadic airstrikes against Isis in Libya.

In his letter, Blunt said the international force of which the UK would be part will be deployed in the near future and the committee had heard it will have two objectives: to train the Libyan army and provide security for the new government in Tripoli.

“The pre-emptive deployment of UK military forces is now a matter for the House of Commons. I, therefore, request that you make a statement to the House on the state of the plan of for any deployment of UK military forces in Libya before the defence secretary agrees the UK component of any international force and explain how this deployment is consistent with our policy objectives,” Blunt wrote.

The Italian-led force requires first a formal invitation from the new government. Ministers from the Libyan unity government are expected to establish an office in Tripoli in the coming days, but their arrival is likely to be contested and could trigger fresh violence in the capital.

Western capitals predict the new government will give a green light to a future military training programme for a new Libyan army and back the US-led airstrikes against Isis militants already under way.

The list of proposed ministers has yet to receive a vote of approval from the House of Representatives (HoR), a UN-backed assembly in Tobruk, as had been envisaged in a political settlement agreed in Morocco in December. But western diplomats say the volatile and often violent nature of Libyan politics meant that many HoR members were not able to cast their votes. Instead, the presidency council chose to interpret the endorsement of about 100 HoR members as a “green light” to proclaim the new government.

It is widely accepted that the government will have no real legitimacy without moving to Tripoli, the seat of most state institutions, but that will not be easy. It is opposed by the leadership of the Islamist-dominated general national congress (GNC) and at least one hardline militia, the Samood Front. Even members of thenegotiating group that produced the December agreement have voiced doubts on its legitimacy without a formal HoR vote.

However, negotiations are under way this week with other Tripoli militias prepared to accept the new government, if only because its arrival would resume the flow of foreign funds into the Libyan capital. Those talks are hoped to clear the way for the quiet arrival of at least some of the new ministers, including the prime minister designate and the head of the presidency council, Fayez al-Sarraj. That would establish at least a symbolic presence that the UN, US and Europe hope will bring the support of other power-brokers in Libya’s chaotic political and military landscape.

However, it is expected that the Samood Front, Isis and other hardline Islamists in Tripoli would seek to target the ministers, triggering a flareup of violence in the capital. The ministers would have to stay for the immediate future in a single heavily guarded location.


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