PARIS, Dec 14, (Agencies): French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday that the Islamic State group was spreading from its stronghold on the Libyan coast to the interior of the country with the aim of getting access to oil wells. “They are in Sirte, their territory extends 250 kms (155 miles) along the coast, but they are starting to penetrate the interior and to be tempted by access to oil wells and reserves,” Le Drian told RTL radio. World powers are trying to convince Libya’s warring factions to lay down their weapons and fall behind a new national unity government, as IS-allied groups exploit the political chaos to take hold of parts of the country.
French planes carried out surveillance flights over Libya last week. Libya has slipped into chaos since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 which IS has exploited. The UN believes 2,000 to 3,000 fighters are operating there, including 1,500 in the coastal city of Sirte. Libya has had rival administrations since August 2014, when an Islamistbacked militia alliance overran Tripoli, forcing the government to take refuge in the east. Meanwhile, the Islamic State jihadist group has executed a woman for “witchcraft” and a man accused of spying in its Libyan stronghold, news agencies close to the country’s rival authorities said Monday.
IS beheaded the Moroccan woman in a public square and shot dead a Palestinian man for alleged spying in the coastal city of Sirte, said the agency close to the internationally recognised government. The jihadists also chopped off a Libyan’s hand for stealing, witnesses told it and a rival Tripoli-based news agency. Libya has had rival administrations since August 2014, when an Islamistbacked militia alliance overran Tripoli, forcing the government to take refuge in the east. IS has exploited chaos and insecurity in Libya since the 2011 fall of Gaddafi to extend its influence in the North African country.
The group claimed control of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown some 430 kms (260 miles) east of the capital, in June. The group is trying to spread toward Ajdabiya, a city controlled by loyalist forces and located between Sirte and Benghazi in an area where most of the country’s oil and gas terminals are located. According to a UN report issued in December, IS has between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters in Libya, including 1,500 in Sirte. But the jihadists face “strong resistance from the population as well as difficulties in building and maintaining local alliances”, the report said. In other news, global powers on Sunday backed the formation of a national unity government in Libya, pledging economic and security support to help stabilise the chaotic North African country where Islamic State militants have a foothold.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni, joined by UN envoy Martin Kobler, were optimistic that the majority of the representatives of Libya’s two rival governments would sign a unity deal on Dec 16. Representatives from 17 countries including Egypt, Germany, Russia, Turkey, and China signed a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire and promising to cut off contacts with factions that do not sign the deal. Fifteen Libyans from different groups also attended the meeting. Past deadlines have slipped amid internal disagreements in the sprawling, oil-producing country rife with armed groups. “We stand ready to support the implementation of the political agreement and underline our firm commitment to providing the Government of National Accord with full political backing and technical, economic, security and counter-terrorism assistance, as requested,” the statement said.
Both Kerry and Gentiloni, who cochaired the meeting, appeared confident a deal was around the corner, and stressed that a unity government was needed also to fight the growing threat from Islamic State militants. “The message of today’s meeting is clear,” Gentiloni said. “What matters is the stablisation of Libya because this too can contribute to the fight against terrorism.” Libya has sunk deeper and deeper into chaos since a Western-backed rebellion toppled Muammar Gaddafi four years ago. The OPEC member now has two rival governments and two parliaments each backed by competing armed factions. Divisions over the UN deal are raising questions about how opponents will react to any new government in the capital Tripoli.
Former colonial power Italy has sought to focus international attention on the OPEC country’s drift towards anarchy, particularly since last month’s deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris. Libya is less than 300 km (190 miles) across the Mediterranean Sea from the Italian island of Lampedusa. With around 3,000 fighters, Islamic State has solidified its foothold in Libya by taking over the central city of Sirte. It has attacked a hotel and a prison in Tripoli, oil fields and military checkpoints, and issued a video of its militants beheading 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach.