TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — The head of a U.N.-brokered Libyan unity government arrived in the capital by sea Wednesday to set up a temporary seat of power in a naval base despite threats from competing factions, which prevented him from arriving by air.
Western nations view the unity government as the best hope for ending Libya’s chaos and uniting all factions against an increasingly powerful Islamic State affiliate, which has seized the central city of Sirte. But factions within two other rival Libyan governments, one of which is based in Tripoli, are opposed to the U.N.-backed body.
Fayez Serraj sailed in from neighboring Tunisia aboard a Libyan vessel, according to the unity government’s website, which denied reports that the officials had been brought in aboard an Italian ship. His arrival sparked fears of renewed clashes in Tripoli, which is controlled by several militias with different loyalties.
Hours after he landed, shops and restaurants closed, and cars lined up outside petrol stations. Opposing militias set up checkpoints in downtown Tripoli, stopping cars and searching drivers.
Serraj arrived with six deputies who are members of the Presidential Council, which was established based on a U.N.-mediated deal signed by breakaway groups from the two governments last year. The council formed the new unity government headed by Serraj.
The officials were prevented from flying into Tripoli by a rival Islamist-backed government based in the capital. A third government is based in the east of the vast oil-rich country. Libya has been dominated by an array of militias since the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
“It is time for all of us as Libyans to work together for the sake of Libya,” Serraj said upon his arrival, according to the government’s Facebook page. He urged rivals to “turn the page of the past,” saying “revenge, alienation, antipathy, and hatred don’t build a state.” In a nod to Islamist factions, Serraj stressed that all laws will be compliant with Shariah.
He also vowed to unify state institutions and implement “rapid measures” to lessen the suffering of civilians. Pictures on the website showed him shaking hands with naval officers, who presented him with a golden plate.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the council’s arrival.
“Now is not the time for obstructionists to hold back progress, but rather for all Libyans throughout the country to embrace this historic opportunity for a peaceful and more prosperous Libya,” he said in a statement.
The U.N. envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, praised Serraj’s “exceptional personal courage” and urged officials to facilitate an “immediate orderly and peaceful handover of power.” He tweeted: “All security actors in #Libya have responsibility to ensure safety and security of Presidency Council & #GNA.”
But Ali Abu Zakouk, the foreign minister of the Islamist-backed government, said Serraj’s presence is “unacceptable.” Last week, the Tripoli government declared a state of emergency and ordered its forces to “increase security patrols and checkpoints.” Days later, the government closed Tripoli’s air space.
On Tuesday, Khalifa Ghweil, the prime minister, said the U.N. was “deepening the schism” and that its political deal had produced “a deformed newborn.” He added in a televised speech that the government had to close the air space after members of the U.N.-backed government tried to fly in on a passenger plane from Tunisia, accusing them of using the other passengers as “human shields.”
Tripoli’s airport was closed again on Wednesday, with all flights diverted to Misrata, an airport official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
After Serraj’s arrival, Ghweil reiterated his opposition to the U.N. government, which he described as “infiltrators.” He questioned the new government’s commitment to Islamic law and urged militias to oppose it.
“Either they hand themselves in or leave,” he said.
Serraj faces a daunting array of challenges, and could struggle to impose his will on the Central Bank, the state-run oil company and other institutions.
More immediately, he is at risk of being attacked or besieged in his base by rival militias. He is being guarded by battle-hardened militias from the city of Misrata, which saw fierce fighting during the uprising five years ago. But Tripoli is also home to several powerful Islamic militant groups, which could move against him, setting off yet another round of fighting.
Tripoli’s various militias appeared to be weighing their next moves, with many leaning toward support for Serraj.
The spokesman of the Special Deterrent Force, a powerful unit that answers to Tripoli’s Interior Ministry, said it would support Serraj. “We want one man to unite the country. We hope that this man is Serraj,” Ahmed ben Salem said.
But he said around 20 percent of the militias are opposed to the new government. Among them is Salah Badi, part of the Libya Dawn coalition which backed Tripoli’s parliament against forces allied with the internationally-backed government in 2014. Fighting that year saw the Tripoli government secure the capital while the internationally-backed government relocated to the country’s far east.
The U.S. and its European allies hope the U.N.-backed government can unify the country and serve as an ally against IS. U.S. special forces have been on the ground, working with Libyan officials, and U.S. warplanes have carried out airstrikes. Libyan officials say small teams of French, British and Italian commandos are also on the ground helping militiamen battling IS in the eastern city of Benghazi, though those three countries have not confirmed their presence.
The establishment of a unity government could pave the way for lifting an arms embargo on Libya, allowing Western countries to provide greater support to local forces.