Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni (left) holds a press conference upon his arrival in the Libyan capital Tripoli on April 12, 2016
Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni (left) holds a press conference upon his arrival in the Libyan capital Tripoli on April 12, 2016 © Mahmud Turkia - AFP
Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni (left) holds a press conference upon his arrival in the Libyan capital Tripoli on April 12, 2016
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Italian FM to visit Tripoli, first by top Western official since 2014

Italy's foreign minister hailed Libya's new unity government Tuesday as a "game changer" as he held talks in Tripoli during the first visit by a top Western official since 2014.

In another boost to the unity leaders, lawmakers with Libya's internationally recognised parliament said they would vote next week on whether to endorse the UN-backed cabinet.

Italy's top diplomat Paolo Gentiloni met Fayez al-Sarraj, named prime minister-designate under a UN-backed power-sharing deal in December, amid tight security in Tripoli.

It came as representatives of dozens of countries and international organisations including the World Bank held talks in neighbouring Tunisia on ways to help the unity government shape its priorities.

World powers see the establishment of the unity cabinet as vital to tackling a raging jihadist insurgency and rampant people smuggling in the North African state.

"This decision was a game changer," Gentiloni said in Tripoli of the establishment of the UN-backed government.

Foreign embassies would be reopened in the capital in "the near future", he added.

Italy is supporting the unity government "because it will pave the way to the stabilisation of Libya -- then we can manage human trafficking and smugglers and terrorism," Gentiloni said.

He said that European countries were ready to work with Libya to tackle the Islamic State group (IS), but that the country's government and people must lead the fight.

"We can cooperate but cannot decide for the Libyans," he said before flying to Tunisia to join the international conference.

Gentiloni's brief visit comes nearly two weeks after Sarraj arrived in Tripoli by sea with a naval escort and established his headquarters at a naval base.

He has since won the support of key institutions that control Libya's wealth and also appears to have the backing of at least some militias.

But Sarraj has not yet received the endorsement of the country's internationally recognised parliament, and the head of a rival Tripoli-based administration has refused to recognise his authority.

The recognised legislature will, however, meet on Monday for a vote of confidence in the unity government, parliamentarians said.

Libya has been plagued by instability since the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime ruler Moamer Kadhafi, with IS taking advantage of the chaos to seize territory.

- No 'combat mission' -

The oil-rich country has had two rival administrations since mid-2014 when a militia alliance overran Tripoli, setting up its own authority and forcing the recognised parliament to flee to the remote east.

Italy, the former colonial power in the North African state, has played a leading role in international efforts to pressure Libya's warring rivals to rally behind the unity government.

European nations in particular have been alarmed by the expansion of IS in Libya, just 300 kilometres (185 miles) from Italy across the Mediterranean.

The jihadist group last year seized control of Kadhafi's coastal hometown of Sirte and has been fighting to expand to other areas.

The number of IS fighters in Libya has doubled in the past 12-18 months and now stands at about 4,000 to 6,000, the head of US forces in Africa, General David Rodriguez, said last week.

As well as tackling IS, European governments hope the unity government can crack down on people smugglers who have stepped up their lucrative business in Libya amid the chaos.

Libya has long been a stepping stone for migrants, and there are concerns that European efforts to shut down the migrant sea crossing from Turkey to Greece will encourage more people to leave from North Africa.

Libyan coastguards on Tuesday intercepted six boats carrying 649 would-be migrants and returned them to Tripoli, a spokesman said.

Sarraj posted on Facebook that he and Gentiloni discussed the fight against extremism as well as the migrant crisis.

"What the unity government will ask the international community to do in the fight against terrorism is (provide) support and coordination to safeguard national security, rather than a combat mission," he wrote.

Western nations are openly considering military action against the extremists but have said that this can only happen at the request of a unity government.

Italy said Tuesday it had provided 1 million euros worth of food and medicine in western Libya over the past month.

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