By Robin Emmott and Phil Stewart
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO said on Thursday it had received a new and detailed request from Libya’s U.N.-backed government to train and develop its military, depleted by years of conflict and facing an Islamist militant threat as well as division among Libyan militias.
As the West and neighboring Egypt seek to stabilize Libya, NATO has offered support to the Tripoli-based government but a request from Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Seraj in May last year was seen as too broad.
Seraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) has been trying to formulate plans for unified Libyan security forces since arriving in Tripoli in March, but has made little progress in asserting its authority over rival factions. It is unclear if an Egyptian-brokered roadmap can help heal divisions between Seraj and Khalifa Haftar, a powerful eastern-based military commander.
Now NATO has a detailed call for help from Seraj, official said.
“We have said for some time that we are ready to help Libya, but any assistance has to be based on a request from the Libyan government. This is the request we received yesterday,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference.
“Training local forces is one of the best weapons in the fight against terrorism and building stability,” he later told defense ministers meeting in Brussels.
The call for help follows European Union efforts to work with Seraj to curb an expected surge in people taking to boats to Europe from Libya as the weather improves in the Mediterranean.
NATO officials said the U.S.-led alliance will need time to respond to the government in Tripoli to decide on specific steps. NATO, which has experience training troops in Afghanistan, is being asked to develop a Libyan defense ministry with a chief of defense and intelligence-gathering capabilities.
“It is extremely important to have a ministry of defense, a (military) command and chief of staffs because Libya needs that framework to develop forces and stabilize the country,” Stoltenberg said.
He said NATO could work either in or outside Libya. The EU is already training the Libyan coastguard in Italy and in international waters off North Africa.
Just 480 km (300 miles) from Europe’s coast, Libya’s slide into anarchy has made it an outpost for Islamist militants and a staging post for sub-Saharan African migrants aided by smugglers.
But the failure of the West’s 2011 intervention still weighs on Western officials, even as the United States urges Europe to take a bigger role in securing the region.
Germany did not support the U.N. resolution to allow the air campaign that led to the ouster and death of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, while Russia has accused NATO of overstepping its brief to use “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)