Latest update : 2015-04-21
EU foreign ministers were set to discuss the influx of migrants at a meeting Monday in Luxembourg after the drowning of at least 700 people off the Libyan coast over the weekend. The disaster has shined a spotlight on a burgeoning EU immigration crisis that the UN said has claimed some 1,600 lives so far this year.
Per capita national income in the European Union is 30 times that found in Libya and most other North African states, a discrepancy that prompts many to risk crossing the Mediterranean. But the militia takeover of much of Libya – and the continuing fighting between rival armed groups – has led many more in recent years to attempt the perilous journey to European shores.
Libya is embroiled in a civil conflict that is threatening to turn the country into a failed state. Two rival governments – the internationally recognised winner of June 2014 elections based in Tobruk and another Misrata-based faction that controls the capital, Tripoli – are jockeying for dominance, with each controlling its own political institutions and military forces.
The inter-militia fighting has intensified since the general election last year and Libya is now more than ever in desperate need of a functioning government to assert control over the armed factions that united to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011 but which have since refused to disarm and cede control to a central government.
Up to 1,700 armed groups are now active in Libya – some of them secular, others Islamist, with loyalties further divided along regional, ethnic and tribal lines. Militias and tribal fighters have seized the country’s main oil ports, commandeering the OPEC member’s main source of revenue.
Rival militias have carved out areas of influence, launched multiple attacks on the airports and parliament, and carried out several high-level kidnappings, including briefly detaining the serving prime minister in 2013.
Without a functioning central authority, Libya has become a safe haven for foreign terrorist organisations as well as human-traffickers. A lack of border controls has made Libya a key route for weapons shipments to al Qaeda branches in sub-Saharan Africa and a travel corridor for jihadists bound for Syria.
A video released Sunday purportedly showed Islamic State militants in Libya shooting or beheading 30 Ethiopian Christians. The 29-minute video was grimly similar to a video released in February showing the militants beheading 21 captured Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach, an act that prompted Egypt to launch air strikes on the group's strongholds in Libya. The Islamists also launched a high-profile attack on the upscale Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli in January.
The fighting in Libya killed more than 2,800 people last year and displaced almost 400,000, the UN said in a February report.
US President Barack Obama called on Gulf nations over the weekend to use their influence to help resolve the infighting.
"We're going to have to encourage some of the countries inside of the Gulf who have, I think, influence over the various factions inside of Libya to be more cooperative themselves," Obama told reporters on Saturday.
"In some cases, you've seen them fan the flames of military conflict, rather than try to reduce them," he said.
Push for unity deal
Bernardino Leon, the UN’s special representative and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, told reporters on Sunday that rival factions reached a draft agreement during a latest round of negotiations in the Moroccan city of Skhirat.
"We have now a draft which looks like something very close to a final agreement. Eighty percent of the text in this draft is, let me put it this way, is something that the parties can agree," he said.
He added that negotiators would be returning to Libya for consultations before coming back to Morocco in two weeks to finalise a deal.
He said preparations were also under way for the armed rivals to enter direct talks for the first time.
"This will be the first time that the armed groups, the people who are holding weapons and who are fighting on the ground, might meet," he said. "We want this meeting to be face-to-face – not proximity talks, but direct talks – with the support and sponsorship of the United Nations."
But Leon underscored that Libya faces a very precarious situation within its borders.
"There are reports of more terrorist activities by ISIS (Islamic State group)," Leon said.
"We know that the enemies of peace, the enemies of the agreement, will be active and will be more active in the coming days and weeks," he said.
Heading into the Luxembourg talks on Monday, Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat emphasised that the EU needed to address the Libyan situation if it hoped to tackle the migrant crisis.
"The name of the game is Libya and the securitisation of Libya," Muscat said. "We have what is fast becoming a failed state on our doorsteps, and criminal gangs are enjoying a heyday."
"Unless something is done about Libya, these scenes will be repeating themselves," he warned.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called the hundreds of migrant deaths a stain on the EU's conscience.
"We have said too many times 'never again'. Now is time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay."