Libya unity government bolsters control despite setback

Tripoli (AFP) - Libya's new unity leaders worked to tighten their hold on Tripoli Thursday, taking over the website of a rival authority in the capital whose head is refusing to stand aside.

A week after arriving by sea with a naval escort, the UN-backed unity cabinet appears to be winning the support of key institutions that control Libya's wealth and, crucially, militias in the capital.

But a call by Tripoli's unrecognised prime minister Khalifa Ghweil on Wednesday for his ministers not to cede power, contradicting an earlier announcement, highlighted the still-chaotic situation.

It was unclear how much influence Ghweil, an engineer from the port city of Misrata east of Tripoli, still wields in the largely tribal nation.

Libya's warring rivals have come under intense international pressure to rally behind the unity government at a time when the country is grappling with a growing jihadist threat.

The Islamic State group has exploited the turmoil in Libya since the overthrow of dictator Moamer Kadhafi five years ago, raising fears that it is establishing a new stronghold on Europe's doorstep.

In a sign of its widening influence, the UN-sponsored administration of prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj took over the website of the unrecognised Tripoli authorities on Thursday.

The site now bears the logo of the unity government, and the names of Ghweil's cabinet have been replaced by those of a presidential council created under a power-sharing deal in December.

That agreement was inked by some lawmakers from both sides but not endorsed by the country's two rival governments.

The other administration, which has long claimed international legitimacy because it was appointed by the parliament elected in the last polls in 2014, has so far refused to back the unity government.

- Militias hold key -

The reason behind Ghweil's apparent U-turn was unclear but it hinted at divisions within the Tripoli authorities that were installed by a militia alliance that seized the capital in 2014.

A statement issued a day earlier in the name of his so-called National Salvation Government had said that it was ready to step aside.

The fear is that a new power struggle could spark fresh violence in a country that has been in turmoil since the 2011 uprising.

Much now depends on the support of powerful militias that overran Tripoli two years ago, forcing the government backed by the international community to take refuge in the country's far east.

A politician close to the unity government said money was a key factor because some of the militiamen who brought Ghweil to power are no longer being paid by his authorities.

According to a security source in Tripoli, there were talks between the unity government and armed groups for weeks before Sarraj's arrival to ensure the transition went smoothly.

"There is no security body or armed group now opposed to the unity government, and they are holding back while the situation, and this government's actions, become clear," he said.

Sarraj's cabinet has in recent days been broadening its support, winning the backing of the National Oil Corporation, the Central Bank and the Libyan Investment Authority.

His Government of National Accord on Wednesday ordered all government "ministries and institutions and committees" to respect its authority and use its logo.

It also instructed the Central Bank and the Audit Bureau to freeze all state accounts immediately, except for salary payments to government employees.

French President Francois Hollande said Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault spoke on Thursday with Sarraj to "reaffirm our support" to his government.

Hollande told reporters at a Franco-German cabinet meeting in Metz, eastern France, that Sarraj had asked for the EU's help in efforts to combat human trafficking from Libya.

UN envoy Martin Kobler, who visited Libya this week, was due to brief the UN Security Council Thursday on his efforts to bring about a peaceful power handover.

Kobler has welcomed the Tripoli authority's willingness to hand over but cautioned that "deeds must follow words".