VIENNA — The United States and other world powers said Monday they are ready to supply Libya's internationally recognized government with weapons to counter the Islamic State and other militant groups gaining footholds in its lawless regions.
To do that, the world powers will approve exemptions to a U.N. arms embargo imposed on Libya to keep lethal arms away from Islamic extremists and rival militias vying for power. In a communique, the U.S., four other permanent U.N. Security Council members and the more than 15 other nations participating in talks on Libya said they are "ready to respond to the Libyan government's requests for training and equipping" government forces.
"The Government of National Accord has voiced its intention to submit appropriate arms embargo exemption requests to the UN Libya Sanctions Committee to procure necessary lethal arms and materiel to counter UN-designated terrorist groups and to combat Da'esh throughout the country," said the communique, using an alternate name for the Islamic State. "We will fully support these efforts while continuing to reinforce the UN arms embargo."
While the statement spoke of intentions, the fact that all five permanent U.N. Security Council members back the plan to arm the internationally backed government means that it is unlikely to face significant opposition from any quarter.
The communique was issued at the end of the talks that gathered U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and top officials from more than 20 other nations to discuss ways to strengthen Libya's fledgling government. The aim is to give the internationally recognized administration more muscle in fighting Islamic State radicals and end its rivalry with a group to the east claiming legitimacy.
Kerry called the plan to arm the internationally supported government while continuing to try and shut extremists out of getting weapons "a delicate balance."
"But we are all of us here today supportive of the fact that if you have a legitimate government and that legitimate government is fighting terrorism, that legitimate government should not be victimized by (the embargo)," he told reporters.
The international community "will measure whatever requests there are ... with our call to all states to improve the enforcement of the arms embargo itself," he said.
Libyan Premier Fayez al-Sarraj said his government would soon submit a weapons wish list.
"We have a major challenge ahead of us," in fighting extremists, he said. "We urge the international community to assist us."
Before the meeting, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier outlined the high stakes at hand.
"The key question is whether Libya remains a place where terrorism, criminal human smuggling and instability continues to expand, or if we are able, together with the government of national unity to recover stability," he told reporters.
The challenges are daunting.
Libya descended into chaos after the toppling and death of Moammar Gaddafi five years ago and soon turned into a battleground of rival militias battling for powers. More recently, the power vacuum has allowed Islamic State radicals to expand their presence, giving them a potential base in a country separated from Europe only by a relatively small stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.
Also worrying for Europe is the potential threat of a mass influx of refugees amassing in Libya, now that the earlier route from Turkey into Greece has been essentially shut down.
In Libya, meanwhile, the U.N.-established presidency council on Monday effectively gave the go-ahead for 18 government ministers to start work, even though they have not received backing from the parliament.
The council was created under a U.N.-brokered unity deal struck in December to reconcile Libya's many political divisions. It won the support of a former powerbase in the country's capital, Tripoli, but failed to secure a vote of confidence by the country's internationally recognized parliament, based in Tobruk, a city in eastern Libya.
The U.N. deal also created the internationally recognized government, through a de facto Cabinet to administer the country under Prime Minister-designate Fayez Serraj and the 18 ministers will answer to him.
Divisions in the Tobruk parliament between boycotters and supporters of the new government have prevented the house from reaching a quorum to endorse the council.