The future of Libya's new UN-backed unity government was put in doubt on Wednesday, after Prime Minister Khalifa Ghweil of the country’s Tripoli-based National Salvation Government backtracked on an earlier promise to cede power.
Urging his ministers not to stand down, Ghweil told his cabinet that "given the requirements of public interest," ministers are "requested to continue your mission in accordance with the law."
Ghweil also threatened to prosecute anyone working with the new government, without elaborating on his decision for the U-turn.
The Tripoli government took control of the capital city two years ago after electing its own prime minister, rivalling the House of Representatives, which later moved to the eastern city of Tobruk.
Ghweil’s announcement came the day before UN envoy Martin Kobler is due to report to the UN Security Council on his progress in ending fives years of instability in Libya after the killing of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Kobler had himself been prevented from travelling to the capital last month by the Tripoli government, but was allowed to meet the UN-backed Government of National Accord’s prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli on Tuesday.
Kobler has praised the "courage and determination" of the unity government and said the UN was ready to provide "all the support needed" towards an "immediate and peaceful handover of power."
The GNA emerged from a UN-mediated deal signed in December by figures from both sides of Libya's political divide.
Sarraj, a businessman, arrived with members of his cabinet in the capital by sea last week, after the Tripoli government closed airspace to keep him out. He has since established his headquarters at a naval base and had been moving to bolster his authority.
The new administration has been broadening its support, winning the backing of the Libyan Investment Authority, the National Oil Corporation and the Central Bank.
Ten coastal cities that were under the control of the Tripoli government have also backed the new government.
However, the GNA has not yet received the endorsement of the rival government in Tobruk.
There was no immediate reaction from Sarraj on Tripoli’s U-turn, but before the Ghweil’s announcement, the GNA had ordered all government ministries, institutions and committees to respect its authority and use its logo.
It also ordered the Central Bank and the Audit Bureau to freeze all state accounts immediately, except for salary payments to government employees.
The international community has pleaded with Libya's warring sides to unite behind the unity government, which it sees as vital to tackling expansion of the DAESH terrorist group and rampant people smuggling in the North African state.