A standoff between two rival governments in Libya looked set to worsen on Thursday as the administration newly chosen by parliament accused the incumbent prime minister of using force to try to stop it being sworn in.
Fathi Bashagha was due to take the oath of office in Tobruk, but the current Tripoli administration of Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah has vowed not to cede power, amid a growing risk of fighting or a return to territorial division.
Bashagha complained late on Wednesday that Dbeibah had cut off Libyan airspace to prevent ministers in the new government from reaching Tobruk and early on Thursday his office said two ministers were abducted as they tried to travel by land.
A spokesman for Dbeibah’s government was not immediately available to comment on the alleged abduction of Bashagha’s foreign and culture ministers by an armed force affiliated with his administration.
The parliament session to swear in Bashagha will go ahead despite the likely absence of some members, who can take the oath later, said a spokesperson for the chamber.
However, the United Nations cast doubt overnight on the validity of the parliament’s effort to install Bashagha, saying it was concerned by reports that Tuesday’s vote of confidence “fell short of the expected standards”.
The position of international powers will be key in the coming tussle for control of Libya, with a risk of renewed war after a year and a half of comparative peace between major factions battling for control of the oil-rich state.
Armed groups affiliated with opposing factions have mobilised in the capital and foreign forces including from Russia and Turkey remain entrenched in Libya on different sides.
Groups located in the main oil producing regions have meanwhile warned they may block off Libya’s energy exports, which amount to 1.3 million barrels per day.
Libya has had little peace or security since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi and it split in 2014 between rival governments based in Tripoli, in the west, and in the east where the parliament is based.
Neither the political nor the military coalitions that are crystallising now exactly match those that fought from 2014 until a 2020 truce, but any new conflict would again likely pit eastern forces against a combination of western groups.
Dbeibah’s government was put in place a year ago through a U.N.-backed peace process that was aimed at resolving political problems through an election, but the vote did not take place amid arguments over the rules.
Since then, the parliament has tried to take control of the process by saying Dbeibah’s term had expired and setting a course towards a referendum on an altered constitution and then elections in 2023.
Dbeibah has rejected the parliament’s stance and says he is planning to hold national elections in June. Both sides blame each other for the failure of December’s election and accuse each other of lacking legitimacy.
The parliament was elected in 2014 and mostly backed the eastern forces of Khalifa Haftar, which laid partial siege to Tripoli from 2019-20, destroying much of the city in an attempt to wrest it from the then internationally recognised government.
The U.N. secretary general’s spokesperson said in an emailed statement there were reports that Tuesday’s vote did not meet standards of transparency and procedure, and of acts of intimidation before the session.
The parliament spokesperson has denied there was wrongdoing.
The United Nations said the main focus now should be on renewing the push for elections and added U.N. Libya adviser Stephanie Williams would soon invite the parliament and an opposing political body, the High Council of State, for talks.
The designated economy minister in Bashagha’s government, Jamal Shaaban, said he would not join the new administration over doubts about Tuesday’s voting process.