Vella warns of fierce clashes in Libya if unity government forces entry in Tripoli

The delayed entry of the United Nations-backed national Libya unity government has proven to be a fertile ground for Islamic State militants, with foreign affairs minister George Vella warning that forced entry could spell further trouble in the war-torn country

Foreign affairs minister George Vella
Foreign affairs minister George Vella
An Islamic State convoy in Sirte, Libya
An Islamic State convoy in Sirte, Libya

The forced entry of the UN-backed government in Tripoli could result in fierce clashes in the Libyan capital and could see Islamic State militants take further advantage of the political and security vacuum in the country, foreign affairs minister George Vella has warned.

In comments to The Sunday Times of Malta, the minister warned against alienating the Islamist-backed government in Tripoli, warning that if the rival UN-backed government were to force its entry in Tripoli, it may give rise to more unrest and benefit the Islamic State.

“Malta supports the national unity government but I have my concerns about alienating the Tripoli administration, which could risk pushing certain elements into the hands of Daesh,” the minister said.

The unity government, which was announced on January 19 under a United Nations-backed plan, is aimed to bridge a political divide between the internationally recognised government in Tobruk and the rebel-backed authority holding power in Tripoli.

However, the UN-backed government is yet to set foot in the country’s capital as it does not enjoy the support of the majority of MPs in the two elected parliaments.

The consequent political and security vacuum in the country has proved to be fertile ground for the growth of the Islamic State, with the group “significantly expanding” its territory in Libya. In March, following a brief meeting with foreign affairs minister George Vella in Valletta, United Nations’ special delegate to Libya Martin Kobler warned that the rise of the Islamic State was expanding “day by day”.

Indeed, ever since it declared its intentions to establish a presence in Libya in 2014 amid civil discord, IS has been launching attacks ever since and the group is now thought to control 150 miles of Libyan coastline and boasts an army of more than 5,000 fighters.

Its base is in Sirte, the port city on the Mediterranean about 300 miles southeast of Malta, a gateway to major oil fields and refineries. On the east, the terrorist group has been pushing towards Ras Lanuf, a key oil depot in Libya, while on the west, there is the capital Tripoli and Misurata, the country’s third-largest city and trade capital.

The rise of the Islamic State – or Daesh, an adopted acronym of their Arabic name – has fuelled fears that Sirte may become the group’s fallback option after Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria and be used as a gateway to Europe.

In comments to MaltaToday, foreign affairs minister George Vella had said that the situation in Libya had almost reached “the point of no return” and warned that if Islamic State militants were to take control of more territory in Libya, the result could be devastating.

So far efforts to achieve some form of security and stability in the country by the United Nations-backed government (the Government of National Accord) have been progressing at a sluggish pace.

As a result, UN envoy Martin Kobler had insisted there be an immediate transfer of power, even without the unity government being endorsed by the House of Representatives.

However, the setting up of the GNA in Tripoli this week hit a brick wall as Tripoli’s prime minister Khalifa Ghwel declared a state of emergency and asked security agencies and armed militia “to take all necessary actions to preserve the security of the country” after it was reported that four members of the rival UN-backed government arrived in Tripoli to prepare for the arrival of prime-minister designate Faiez Serraj and the rest of the Council.

And according to George Vella, further attempts by the UN-backed government to force its way into Tripoli so there be a transfer of power, could see the country descend into further chaos.

“It would be like lighting a march-stick … it is naïve to believe that the administration run by [Khalifa] Ghwel would simply move sideways and allow the unity government to take control,” Vella said.

“The situation is very tense and complicated,” he said.

The minister explained that the situation could complicate itself and problems could arise if the unity government attempted to take control, as in such a case Vella fears that Tripoli’s prime minister Khalifa Ghwell would not move aside.

Earlier this month, UN envoy Martin Kobler said  there was a dire humanitarian situation in Libya as thousands of people were displaced, while there were significant shortages of food and medicine. Similarly, he said Libya’s crisis devastated the country’s economy as oil production now stood at 350,000 barrels a day, down from 1.6 million barrels before the 2011 Libyan uprising.