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World

U.S. May Send Weapons To Libya's Fledgling Government

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Obama administration says it will consider sending weapons to Libya's U.N.-backed government. Those weapons would be used to fight the Islamic State and other extremists. At the moment, there's an arms embargo on Libya. And that is because the country is deeply divided among rival militias. There is not much support so far for the new internationally recognized government. The U.S. is hoping to change that, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Kerry says it's time for the international community to put its full weight behind what's being called a Government of National Accord.

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SEC OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Libyan people want a government. The government is here, supported by the international community and ready to go to work.

KELEMEN: That government barely exists on the ground, but it was represented at a meeting in Vienna, where Kerry and his colleagues from more than 20 other nations agreed to consider arming it to fight militants including ISIS, or Daesh, as Kerry calls it. He says diplomats may loosen a U.N. arms embargo on Libya.

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KERRY: The arms embargo does allow for the Government of National Accord to request weapons if it needs them specifically to secure the country and to combat Daesh.

KELEMEN: Back here in Washington, Kerry's spokesman, John Kirby, added a note of caution, however, saying it will take time to make sure weapons get to the right groups in Libya and don't just add to the chaos.

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JOHN KIRBY: We obviously need to make sure that whatever is provided is provided in such a way that it can't end up in the wrong hands, which is the purpose for the embargo to begin with, which was in place since 2011.

KELEMEN: That's the year that rebels, supported by NATO war planes, toppled Libya's longtime ruler, Moammar Gadhafi. The country has been wracked by violence since then, with rival governments and militias vying for power. And this Government of National Unity, or GNA, doesn't control much, according to Claudia Gazzini, a Libya expert with the International Crisis Group.

CLAUDIA GAZZINI: The GNA, at the moment, physically controls a little bit of Tripoli. They don't control the ministries yet. They vow to move into some of these ministries. Parts of western Libya are sort of under the control of forces that have proclaimed their loyalty to the GNA. At the moment, that's about it.

KELEMEN: Backing this government, which has not even been approved by the Libyan Parliament, is a risky strategy, she says. But Gazzini adds the U.S. might be betting on the idea that more militias will join the unity government if it has, in her words, shiny new artillery and uniforms.

GAZZINI: Forces probably, if they're offered weapons, if they're offered military support, might want to jump on the presidential council bandwagon, but we'll have to see.

KELEMEN: In the meantime, a couple dozen U.S. Special Forces have been in contact with various militias on the ground in Libya, trying to find people they can work with in the fight against ISIS. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.