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Libya Crisis Draws In Worried Neighboring Nations

A tank belonging to the Western Shield, a branch of the Libya Shield forces, fires during a clash with rival militias around the former Libyan army camp, Camp 27, in the 27 district, west of Tripoli, Aug. 22, 2014.

As Islamist militias consolidate their hold on Tripoli after seizing the Libyan capital’s international airport last month, their opponents are warning Western powers and neighbors that Libya is close to the point of no return.

The months-long conflict between warring militias roughly divided between Islamists and anti-Islamists competing to exert control is already sucking in nearby countries and Western allies.

“Libya is too important to be left alone to face a fate of chaos, violence and terrorism,” said Fouzi Ammar Alloulki, a senior adviser to Mahmoud Jibril, who served as the rebels’ de facto prime minister during the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled strongman Muammar Gadhafi. He said Islamic fighters from across the region have started to arrive in Libya and warned that left to itself Libya will become home to an Islamist bloc and a safe haven for jihadists.

“The international community is presented with two options today,” he said. “Either to fight extremism or do nothing and allow crime and terrorism to spread to Europe through illegal migration. Libya is only a stone’s throw from the coast of the European Union.”

Obama administration officials who talked to VOA on the condition they not be identified say they don’t see the choice as grimly black-and-white as that, arguing outside interference will likely only exacerbate Libya’s deep political divisions, drawing the country deeper into regional disputes and turning it into a proxy battleground for outside powers.

In a joint statement at the conclusion of a NATO summit in Wales, the U.S. and its European allies said their aim is to help engineer “an immediate cease-fire, scale down tensions, and contribute to national reconciliation.” They added: “we continue to stand ready to support Libya with advice on defense and security institution building.”

Some analysts argue though that the Obama administration is not focusing sufficiently on Libya—the jihadist-led insurgency in Iraq and pro-Russian separatist agitation in eastern Ukraine are seen as higher priorities.

“The US has decided that the Europeans should take the lead on Libya but they aren’t showing leadership and there appears to be confusion among the Europeans about what to do,” said Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based think tank the Atlantic Council. “I am a greater believer in American leadership.”

Mezran has called for the international community to step in “forcing, under threat of military intervention, all warring factions to leave the major urban cities and surrender their heavy weaponry.” This could consist of targeted air force attacks against those brigades and militias that do not comply with the ultimatum, he said, and with a peacekeeping force sent in once agreement has been reached and national reconciliation talks launched.

United Nations diplomat Bernardino Leon arrived Monday in Tobruk, where the newly-elected House of Representatives is meeting, to try to get the militias to agree to a cease-fire.

But so far a deal is proving elusive and fears are mounting that anti-Islamist militias are planning to launch an assault on Tripoli.

“If that happens, there will be a full-fledged civil war and all we will be able to do is sit and watch,” Mezran said.

Some of Libya’s neighbors are eager to bring the anarchy to a halt. Last month, warplanes from the United Arab Emirates using Egyptian airbases launched two strikes over Tripoli on Islamist militias, according to U.S. officials.

Last weekend, the Libyan government expelled the Sudanese military attaché after intercepting a Sudanese military plane loaded with ammunition, which Libyan officials insist was destined for Islamist militias.

Sudan confirmed it had sent a military plane but insisted it was carrying equipment for a joint Libyan-Sudanese border force. Ammunition had been found on the plane during an inspection at Kufra airport, near the border with Sudan.

And there has been international fright about the claimed disappearance of nearly a dozen commercial airliners from Tripoli’s international airport after it fell to the Islamists. The allegation that planes had gone missing prompted regional alarm that a 9/11-style plot may be being hatched, although the leaders of the Islamist brigades have shown no signs of wanting to export their fight outside Libya.

But a jihadist presence in Libya – U.S. and Libyan officials first alleged two years that al-Qaida-connected training camps had been established in the unruly country – is alarming not only Western governments but neighboring countries too.

The Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukri, took a tour last week of Western European capitals to try to cajole EU governments to take a more active role in Libya and to back an initiative launched by Cairo with the support of other regional governments to restore stability to Libya.

Without a functioning government in Libya – the country’s latest interim prime minister recently resigned and Libya’s House of Representatives has no national army to command – it is unclear how the warring militias can be persuaded to stand down.

With violence increasing and the Islamists scoring successes in Tripoli and al-Qaida-connected militias such as Ansar al-Sharia making advances in the eastern city of Benghazi, some in Egypt’s military are hinting there may come a time when Cairo will have to intervene in a more muscular way.

Retired Egyptian general Rifat Abd al-Hamid told the newspaper As-Safir recently that Libyan chaos represents “an imminent danger to Egyptian national security on the levels of law enforcement, politics, diplomacy and the economy.

“There are terrorist cells located in eastern Libya that possess weapons and material left over from the Gadhafi regime’s arsenal, allowing them to disrupt easily Egyptian national security,” he said.

Cairo has officially denied it aided anti-Islamist airstrikes in Libya last month.