GNA minister: hopes for stable Libya 'greatly lifted' by Biden's election

Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha invites US help to curb rogue militias and people smugglers in western Libya

Libya's interior minister Fathi Bashagha speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis, Tunisia March 1, 2020. Picture taken March 1, 2020. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

The powerful interior minister of Libya’s UN-recognised government, seen as a contender for the post of prime minister, has expressed hopes that bringing stability to his war-torn country would become a top priority for the incoming US president Joe Biden.

Fathi Bashagha also announced a major offensive by the government's Turkey-backed forces against militants and human smugglers in the country's west, and invited the United States to assist.

“Our hopes were greatly lifted” by Joe Biden's election victory, Mr Bashagha told Associated Press in a phone interview. “We hope that the new administration has a major role in Libya’s stability and reconciliation."

Mr Bashagha, a former air force pilot and businessman, said he would be ready to take on the role of prime minister in a yet-to-be-formed unity government that could follow peace negotiations between Libya's warring sides.

Oil-rich Libya was plunged into chaos after a 2011 uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi and split the country between the UN-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the east. Each side is backed by an array of local militias as well as regional and foreign powers.

Mr Bashagha hails from the city of Misurata, whose militias are considered the most effective component of the GNA's forces. Although he is considered close to Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, he has in recent months made overtures to foreign backers of the eastern government in what is seen as an attempt to win broad support for the prime minister's post.

Since last year, Libya's rival administrations have been holding UN-led talks to name an interim government before elections later this year, but have so far failed to agree on a voting mechanism to do so. Mr Bashagha’s name was floated as a candidate for premier, observers of the talks say.

In October, the warring sides agreed to a ceasefire, which raised expectations of a peaceful resolution, and said that foreign fighters would leave Libya.

Since becoming interior minister in 2018, Mr Bashagha has positioned himself as one of the most powerful figures in western Libya. He cultivated ties with Turkey, France and the US, but also with Egypt and Russia, who support the eastern-based government.

But his ministry has also struggled to control the patchwork of militias that hold sway in Tripoli and western Libya. Mr Bashagha said he planned to tackle the problem by identifying militias that should be disarmed and those that could be assimilated into the security apparatus. But he said he has faced problems in implementing the plan, alleging that some militias are allied with other Tripoli officials and control some institutions, such as the intelligence apparatus.

Libya has been plagued by corruption under Qaddafi and in the tumultuous years that have followed his overthrow. “The problem is that some of the parts, institutions of the state provide support to these militias,” Mr Bashagha said.

The UN-backed government remains heavily dependent on the militias to battle its eastern rivals. But the militias are not easily controlled and although they beat back a year-long eastern offensive on Tripoli with the support troops, drones and Syrian mercenaries provided by Turkey, some have also been responsible for kidnappings, infighting and civilian casualties.

The Tripoli government has also faced criticism for its handling of the thousands of migrants who transit through Libya, attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.

A 2019 AP investigation found that militias in western Libya torture, extort and otherwise abuse migrants for ransom in detention centers, often under the UN's nose and in compounds that receive millions in European money. Conditions for migrants remain dangerous in Tripoli, according to rights groups and the UN.

Mr Bashagha said he had closed down illegal shelters and was working with the UN to monitor conditions in the remaining ones, but that more funds were needed to maintain them. He also pointed to the arrest in October of Abdel-Rahman Milad, one of the country’s most wanted human traffickers, two years after the UN levelled sanctions against him.

He said his new operation in the country’s west would also target migrant smugglers and could help address the root of the problem.

“The security and stability of Libya is important for Europe and the US,” Mr Bashagha said.