Brussels: The European Union has agreed sanctions on three Libyan leaders who oppose a Western-backed unity government, clearing the way for travel bans and asset freezes to be imposed in the next few days, diplomats said.
EU governments have been hesitating for months, fearful of derailing peace efforts, but Western powers recognised a unity cabinet as Libya's only legitimate government on Sunday, and are pushing for it to move to Tripoli and start work.
The sanctions deal marks a breakthrough for France, which hopes the measures will help accelerate the formation of a government and avoid Libya slipping fully into the hands of IS militants.
"Sanctions have been agreed," a senior EU diplomat told Reuters, saying that although the legal text to support the sanctions still needs to be drawn up, no government is expected to object to the proceedings.
The three men are Nouri Abusahmain, president of Libya's General National Congress in Tripoli, one of two rival parliaments, Khalifa Al Ghwell, prime minister of the Tripoli government, and Aguila Saleh, the president of Libya's internationally recognised parliament in Tobruk.
Ghwell repeated his opposition to transfer powers to the unity government in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday.
French and Italian officials have been saying for more than a year that the political chaos and security vacuum in Libya is allowing hardliners to gain ground, spreading out from Tunisia.
EU foreign ministers held a 90 minute discussion on Libya on Monday with UN special envoy for Libya, Martin Kobler, and some governments warned about the perils of inaction.
"We have four centres of power in practice and it turns out that the most effective one is the one created by IS, which is developing its structures there," Poland's Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said following the meeting.
EU foreign ministers in January promised 100 million euros ($108 million) of immediate support for Libya once a government is formed.
Meanwhile in Tunis the prime minister of Tripoli's self-declared government has warned Libya's UN-backed cabinet - based in Tunis - not to come to the capital, saying such a move would be illegal and suggesting ministers could face arrest.
Two rival administrations within Libya are fighting for control, one in Tripoli, and one in the east, while the United Nations has brokered a deal for a national unity government meant to bring the sides together and end the conflict.
Responding to a request by the UN-backed Presidential Council and Western powers for an immediate transfer of power , Khalifa Al Ghwell told Reuters late on Tuesday he could not hand over authority to a government he said did not enjoy the support of Tripoli's parliament, the General National Congress (GNC).
The US and major European powers recognised the unity cabinet as Libya's only legitimate government on Sunday, and are pushing for it to move to Tripoli and start work.
Ghwell, who leads a government appointed after armed brigades supporting the GNC won a battle for control of Tripoli in 2014 and reinstated it, said the UN-backed cabinet lacked the legitimacy to govern from the capital.
"If they want to enter Libya as individuals they are welcome, because they are Libyans. We don't advise them to enter Libya as a government, as to do so would be a violation to the law, and they will be treated according to the law," he said.
Some major armed brigades in western Libya and several dozen GNC members or former members have also pledged to support the new government.
But the Presidential Council and the unity cabinet it nominated last month have faced opposition from hardliners both in Tripoli and in the east, where an internationally recognised rival government is based.
This month, three members of a security committee appointed to prepare for the unity government's move were briefly detained in Tripoli.
Ghwell said such decisions were taken by judicial authorities, but warned that members of the cabinet could face the same fate.
"We are a sovereign state and must secure our city and safeguard the security of our people, and if they try to come illegally they will create a unforeseen consequences in Tripoli and we don't agree with this," he said.
Ghwell backs parallel talks between members of the two governments in Libya, which he said were preparing an alternative plan for a political transition that he said would be presented in the next two weeks.
Eastern opposition to a transfer of power is centred on concerns over future military leadership among allies of powerful commander Khalifa Haftar, whose Libya National Army has been leading battles against militants.
In a statement condemning a recent attack by suspected IS militants, the eastern government on Wednesday urged Libyans to fully support the army and "not count on the international community, which is still delaying in its support for Libya's legitimate institutions".