Foreign Secretary visits Tripoli to back new Libyan government
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has made an unannounced visit to Libya in a show of support for the country's new UN-backed national unity government.
Mr Hammond said Britain was ready to provide training support to the fledgling administration's armed forces in their fight against Islamic State (IS) militants who have established a firm foothold in the country.
The Foreign Secretary and his entourage were driven from Tripoli airport amid tight security in a convoy of armour-protected SUVs to the heavily protected naval base where prime minister designate Fayez Serraj's government is struggling to establish its authority.
The success of the UN-brokered plan depends upon the new government of national accord (GNA) being able to rally the support of the warring militias who have plunged the country into chaos.
However, Mr Hammond said he believed that after five years of conflict following the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi by rebels backed by British and French-led air strikes, there was now a weariness with conflict and an eagerness for peace.
"What has happened since is a cathartic process. I sense that the Libyan people are ready for reconciliation and a government which allows them to work together," he said.
"Partly that is because they are simply tired of years of fighting each other and partly it is the galvanising effect of Daesh (IS)."
The militants have established a stronghold in Sirte - Gaddafi's home town - just across the Mediterranean from Europe, and from where they have mounted a series of suicide bombings and attacks on oil facilities.
While Mr Hammond said that he did not expect the GNA to ask for direct combat support to take on IS, Britain and other European allies were ready to provide training and other technical support to the Libyan forces.
"It must be for the Libyan people to decide how to recapture their country from the Daesh invaders," he said.
"I hope that as the militia groups come inside the tent, as it were, and co-operate with the government, it will be possible for us and our partners to support the military training programme."
He also made clear that such a mission - which could be based in another country in the region - would not require a Commons vote which was only needed for combat operations.
"That does not extend to non-combat missions," he said.
While it is believed that a small number of special forces troops are already in the country, British sources have played down suggestions the UK is about to deploy a 1,000-strong training mission as part of a 6,000 strong international assistance force.
One source said that they would want to see the GNA up and running, with properly functioning ministries, before making any commitment of that nature.
"We need a functioning government running ministries to decide what they need to do. We are months and months away from any kind of decision of that kind," the source said.
Mr Hammond's arrival follows similar visits over the past week by the Italian, French and German foreign ministers, while the British ambassador also returned to Tripoli for the first time since most foreign embassies pulled out in 2014 amid safety concerns.
At a joint press conference, the Foreign Secretary announced that the UK was committing £10 million in further assistance for the fledgling government of national accord (GNA).
The package includes £1.8 million for counter-terrorism operations and £1.5 million for combating the people traffickers smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean into Europe.
The precarious nature of Mr Serraj's putative new government was underlined when his team were forced to sail into Tripoli when they arrived in March as the authority controlling the capital refused to allow them into its airspace.
But while Mr Serraj has been able to rally support from the Tripoli militias and the municipal councils of western Libya, a rival administration in the eastern city of Tobruk has so far refused to recognise the GNA.
The Europeans meanwhile are looking to the GNA to allow the EU's Operation Sophia against people traffickers to extend its naval patrols into Libyan territorial waters.
The move follows the effective closure of the migrant trail through Turkey and Greece, prompting fears of a new influx trying to reach Europe via Libya.
Following his talks in Tripoli, Mr Hammond headed off to Luxembourg for a meeting of EU foreign and defence ministers to discuss the situation in Libya - including a video conference with Mr Serraj.
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee last week accused Mr Hammond of being "less than candid" about the prospect of British troops being sent to Libya following a visit to Tunisia during which they were told as many as 1,000 could join a 6,000-strong international assistance mission.
The committee's Conservative chairman Crispin Blunt told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "The concept was of 6,000 troops going into Tripoli to occupy the airport and provide training for Libyans there.
"We were not wildly impressed with that concept of operations, because although it would be an attempt to train Libyans, it would inevitably be seen as a Western intervention and it's very likely they would spend most of their time defending themselves from attacks from various militia and Islamic State, rather than providing effective training. It would probably make the situation worse rather than better."
While it was "formally" the case that no decisions have been made on deployment, Mr Blunt said: "These things are choreographed so that as soon as everything was in place and it appeared it was falling into place, the Government of National Accord would say 'Please help' and the next thing you know people would have been identified and would then be on their way.
"There's every indication there are British troops in the form of special forces already on the ground. The actions of French special forces have been very widely reported. Ours appear to be slightly more media-allergic, thank goodness, but there's no doubt that there are operations happening there against Islamic State, as there ought to be."