U.S. Tripoli visit shows increased Libya focus after fighting

US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood meets with Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh, in Tripoli, Libya May 18, 2021. Media Office of the Prime Minister/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday sent its highest-level official to Libya since 2014 in what it called a signal of Washington's increased focus on efforts to resolve the country's crisis.

Acting assistant secretary of state Joey Hood met Libya's new Government of National Unity (GNU) head Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh and Presidency Council chief Mohamed al-Menfi.

"The goal of the United States is a sovereign, stable, unified Libya with no foreign interference, and a state that is capable of combating terrorism," he said at a joint news conference with Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush.

The GNU's appointment in March was accepted by both main sides in the civil war - and their foreign backers - in a move seen as representing the best hope for peace in years, though with many big obstacles remaining.

Libya has had little peace since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, which splintered the country between armed groups who wielded power on the ground and eventually coalesced into two main factions in east and west that operated rival administrations from 2014 until this year.

The U.N.-facilitated peace process, including a ceasefire and steps to resolve tangled economic grievances, has coincided with increased U.S. attention, evident in the appointment of its ambassador Richard Norland as U.S. special envoy to Libya.

The GNU has a mandate to unify state institutions split by the years of warfare, improve government services and prepare for a national election in December.

However, the risk of a return to fighting remains, with armed groups holding territory across the country, foreign mercenaries entrenched with allied Libyan forces along the frozen frontline and outside powers engaged from afar.

Turkey, which in the war backed the U.N.-recognised government with military help, has kept its presence in western areas. Mercenaries and air power supplied by Russia and the United Arab Emirates, according to the United Nations, are in eastern areas.

On both main sides of the conflict, in eastern and western Libya, powerful figures have challenged elements of the GNU's mandate or cabinet, and diplomats have privately called into question the likelihood of elections going ahead.

"We oppose foreign fighters, we oppose proxy forces," Hood said.

"The agreement on an electoral roadmap for elections in December is very important," he added.

Hood is the latest in a parade of foreign diplomats and politicians visiting Libya since the GNU took office, representing countries that backed different sides in the war, with some reopening long-closed embassies.

Mangoush said they had affirmed the need for the United States to support the GNU, particularly in creating the necessary conditions to hold elections.

She said Libya had called on the United States to reopen both its Tripoli embassy and the consulate in Benghazi, where a 2012 militant attack killed the ambassador and three other U.S. personnel.

The United States has been more vocal on Libya issues since last summer, when its military Africa Command issued statements about the presence of Russian military assets in the country.

Since Joe Biden became president in January, its approach towards Libya has become more focused, diplomats from other countries involved in Libya have said.

(Reporting by Reuters Tripoli newsroom, writing by Angus McDowall, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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