April 16, 2016 / 12:17 PM / 2 years ago

French, German ministers fly to Libya to back unity government

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The French and German foreign ministers visited Tripoli on Saturday to show their support for Libya’s U.N.-backed unity government, saying they were ready to offer training for the country’s security forces and border guards if it is requested.

The West is counting on the unity government to tackle Islamic State militants in Libya and prevent new flows of migrants heading north across the Mediterranean, though the new government’s leaders are still trying to establish themselves in Tripoli.

After talks at the naval base where the government’s Presidential Council has been working since its arrival late last month, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said European training for Libyan forces was likely to begin outside the country in the initial stages.

“I think it is realistic enough to say we have to start training measures from my point of view outside of Libya,” Steinmeier told reporters. He said training could be in Libya later, if the security situation stabilized.

Steinmeier said EU states would only act once they received a Libyan request, and that the issue would be addressed at a dinner for EU foreign and defense ministers to discuss Libya on Monday.

“Nothing will be done unless the government wants it and examines it in a very concrete manner,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Libya slipped into political turmoil after a NATO backed air campaign helped rebels topple autocrat Muammar Gaddafi five years ago. Paris played a leading part in the campaign, but has regretted the lack of support given to the authorities afterwards.

Previous foreign efforts to train Libyan security forces were hampered by militia infighting and political squabbling among factions.

Since 2014 the country has had two competing sets of parliaments and governments in Tripoli and the east, both backed by loose alliances of armed brigades.

“We will not repeat the mistakes of 2011, we need to be clear on that,” Ayrault said.

Ayrault said it was also “very important” for Libya’s eastern, internationally recognized parliament to hold a vote on the new government. That vote has been repeatedly delayed, but the parliament is expected to convene on Monday.

He said France was urging Libya’s neighbors - including Egypt, which is close to military forces allied with Libya’s eastern government - to get behind the U.N.-backed administration. “There is no other possible path,” Ayrault said.

Unity government head Fayez Seraj told reporters that the three priorities for his administration were reconciliation, security and trying to revive the country’s economy, which has been hit by tumbling oil revenues.

“We are seeking international support in Libya in fighting terrorism but we don’t expect an international intervention in the field,” Seraj said.

“We’re expecting cooperation in tackling illegal migration so that we can see Libyan beaches as they were before and not as a source of boats of death.”

The Presidential Council arrived in Libya by ship after its opponents shut down Tripoli’s air space to prevent it from flying in. It has been working for months to secure the backing or acquiescence of powerful militias operating in the capital.

Seraj told Reuters that the unity government would start moving into ministries in Tripoli “in the next couple of days”, and that it would not wait for the eastern parliament to vote before doing so.

Additional reporting by John Irish in Geneva; Editing by Mark Potter

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