UNITED NATIONS - The U.N.'s top diplomat in Libya warned Friday that the country is "in a race against time" to protect itself from the growing danger of Islamist extremist groups expanding their grip on the fractured nation.
Martin Kobler, who took over as the U.N. envoy to Libya three weeks ago, told the Security Council via video link from Tunis where he was meeting with political stakeholders, that the country's "very social fabric, national unity and territorial integrity is directly endangered by the forces of extremism and terrorism."
He urged the country's two main rival political parties to overcome their differences and sign a political agreement on December 16 at a conference in Rome.
The General National Congress and its allied militias took control of the capital, Tripoli, last year, sending the internationally-recognized House of Representatives to the eastern city of Tobruk.
The two adversaries have been stuck in a spiral of violence that has contributed to the refugee crisis in Europe and led to the rise of Islamist extremist groups in Libya, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Months of U.N.-brokered talks have made progress, but fallen short of a deal.
Threat from extremists
In a report last month by the U.N.'s al-Qaida sanctions committee, which also looks at affiliated groups, the committee warned that IS is a "short- and long-term threat in Libya."
While IS is only one player among many warring factions, and it faces strong resistance from the population, the committee cautioned that IS has "clearly demonstrated its intention to control additional territory in Libya."
Currently the group has its base in the coastal city of Sirte, which it took control of in February after clashes with militias there.
Libya is strategically important for a group like IS, because it would give it a stronghold far from Iraq and Syria where it faces daily bombardment by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. It is also an oil-rich nation that could provide vital funding for the group's terror activities.
The country also has a supply of foot soldiers for the IS machine, with some 3,500 Libyan nationals having left to join militant groups in Syria and Iraq. The U.N. says about 800 have returned home where they could become recruiting targets.
Libya's U.N. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi told the council that terrorism in his country no longer stems just from extremist ideology.
“It's a job; a lucrative one, which attracts criminals, in particular those from neighboring countries," he said.
He claimed there are thousands of unemployed Tunisians and Egyptians seeking to enter Libya to join IS in exchange for food, housing and the hope of big salaries if the terrorists succeed in seizing control of the country's oil fields.
"The time has come to sign the agreement," Dabbashi said of the Libyan power-sharing deal.
The ongoing crisis has also had tremendous humanitarian consequences. The U.N. estimates 2.4 million people are in need of aid, while 435,000 people are internally displaced and several hundred thousand more are refugees.