World powers ready to arm Libya in fight against ISIS

VIENNA, Austria (3rd UPDATE) – World powers said Monday, May 16, they supported the lifting of an arms embargo on Libya and were ready to supply weapons to the country's new unity government to help it fight the growing threat posed by the Islamic State group.

"The Government of National Accord has voiced its intention to submit appropriate arms embargo exemption requests to the UN Libya Sanctions Committee to procure necessary lethal arms and materiel to counter UN-designated terrorist groups and to combat (ISIS) throughout the country. We will fully support these efforts," read a statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry and 24 other top diplomats after talks in Vienna.

The conference was co-chaired by Kerry and his Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni whose country has faced a major influx of migrants from Libya fleeing violence and poverty.

The North African nation was plunged into chaos after the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi, with rival militias vying to control the oil-rich country.

Taking advantage of the mayhem, the Islamic State group has carved itself a bastion after overrunning the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte – Kadhafi's hometown – last year and transforming it into a training camp for militants.

A unity government was formed in late March after months of negotiation by UN mediators in a bid to end the political chaos that has undermined the fight against ISIS.

But while the Government of National Accord has received backing from key institutions like the central bank and the National Oil Corporation, it still faces resistance from rival administrations in the east and west of Libya.

Springboard for attacks

In a bid to stabilize the country, the fledgling regime of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj drew up a list of requests for Western partners to assist its forces with arms, training and intelligence.

The demands were presented at the Vienna conference, whose attendees included the UN's special envoy to Libya Martin Kobler and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

Europe fears the jihadists, who have in recent weeks made new advances, will use Sirte's port and airport as a springboard to launch attacks on the continent.

"We look forward to partnering with the GNA and neighbouring countries to tackle the threat posed throughout the Mediterranean and on its land borders by criminal organisations engaged in all forms of smuggling and trafficking, including in human beings," the world powers including Russia and Saudi Arabia said in their statement.

"We are ready to respond to the Libyan government's requests for training and equipping the Presidential Guard and vetted forces from throughout Libya."

Libya's leader, who was also present at the Vienna talks, insisted his country needed assistance, not intervention.

"We are not asking for foreign boots on the ground, but we are requesting assistance with training, and lifting the arms embargo on Libya," Sarraj wrote in a column published in the British newspaper The Telegraph on Monday.

Race for Sirte

Libya's divisions have once again deepened in recent days, with the GNA and Haftar's forces each announcing their own plans to fight ISIS and "liberate" Sirte.

"This is a mistake. It must be prevented... we can no longer accept this division," said Nicola Latorre, chairman of the defense committee of the Italian senate and an ISIS expert.

Claudia Gazzini, a Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group, has also warned that the race for Sirte is pushing any hope of a political solution further away.

ISIS is estimated to have around 5,000 fighters in Libya, and it is trying to enlist hundreds more.

This month the jihadists launched suicide attacks on key checkpoints in government-held territory along the Mediterranean coast.

The move allowed them to build a defensive line along part of the coastal highway that links the east of Libya where Haftar is based with Tripoli in the west. – Dave Clark with Mohamad Ali Harissi in Tripoli, AFP/