March 11, 2016 / 12:58 PM / 2 years ago

Europe moves closer to imposing Libya sanctions: diplomats

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union foreign ministers are considering sanctions on three Libyans they see as blocking efforts by the United Nations to form a government of national unity and may go ahead even if a government is agreed, diplomats said.

Strongly backed by France, the travel bans and asset freezes will be discussed by ministers on Monday at a lunch in Brussels. UN special envoy for Libya Martin Kobler will also attend, although he is not arguing in favor or against sanctions, diplomats told Reuters.

The three under the threat of sanctions are Nouri Abusahmain, the head of Libya’s General National Congress in Tripoli, one of two rival parliaments, Khalifa al-Ghwell, who heads one of Libya’s two rival governments, and Aguila Saleh, the president of Libya’s internationally recognized parliament in Tobruk.

French and Italian officials have been saying for more than a year that the political void in Libya is allowing Islamic militants to gain ground, spreading out from Tunisia. Efforts to establish a U.N.-backed unity government in the oil-producing nation have been stalled by resistance from hardliners, or what EU officials call “spoilers” of the political process.

“We expect a decision next week on imposing sanctions on these three,” said one EU diplomat, who stressed that EU foreign ministers are not expected to decide on Monday but that a decision could come later in the week.

The United Nations is seeking to unite factions and militias that have competed for power since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and Western powers say the U.N. process is the only hope of bringing stability and stemming Islamic militancy.

Western powers, including the United States, Britain, France and Germany, are pushing the Libyans to accept a unity government on the basis of a document signed by several members of the internationally recognized parliament in the city of Tobruk.

While the procedure is anything but routine as it would replace a full vote in the parliament in Tobruk, Western diplomats say it is the only way forward, as they fear the full parliament may not vote in favor.

A decision by Libyan factions on the legitimacy of the signed document is expected this weekend.

Libyan sources close to the Tripoli authorities say that even if there is a deal, European foreign ministers may still go ahead with sanctions in a bid to support the new government and make it clear that those who blocked it are no longer part of the country’s political future.

If this plan goes ahead “it could strengthen separatist positions in the Tobruk Parliament and in the East of the country,” Claudia Gazzini, senior analyst for Libya at Crisis Group, said.

Were no deal sealed this weekend, the full Tobruk parliament will likely have to vote on a new unity government, making it less likely that the European Union imposes sanctions on the three politicians, as it may need them for a deal, Libyan sources say.

Facing a refugee crisis on its borders, the European Union is eager to see the U.N.-mediated agreement that sets out a political transition for Libya.

EU foreign ministers in January promised 100 million euros ($108 million) of immediate support for Libya once a government is formed, possibly also increasing that support if security conditions improve and allow the return of international workers.

With a government in place, the EU is also considering helping Libya strengthen its borders and disarm militias, according to a draft plan seen by Reuters.

Editing by Angus MacSwan

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