The United Nations Security Council has added two offshoots of a Libyan Islamist militant group that are thought to be responsible for the 2011 attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi to its terror blacklist.
The council's al Qaeda sanctions committee put the branches of Ansar al Sharia in former joint capital Benghazi and in the eastern port city of Derna on its sanctions list on Wednesday. Both are now subject to an arms embargo, asset freeze, and global travel ban.
America, France, and the UK requested the addition of the groups to the list in a November 4 proposal, citing their links with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other terrorist entities, as well as responsibility for a number of attacks. The leadership of both branches pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist organization in October.
The United States has already applied sanctions to the group as a result of its alleged role in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens along with three other American citizens.
France's UN Ambassador Francois Delattre said that the decision could pave the way for negotiations between Libya's many rival militias in UN-mediated talks.
"This is an important decision because it draws a clear line between, on the one hand, jihadists with whom there can be no dialogue, and on the other, those Libyan groups — Islamist and others — that must take part in talks launched by [UN] Special Envoy Bernardino Leon," he told AFP.
UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond also welcomed the move.
"The decision sends a clear message that the international community will take action against extremist groups in Libya who pose a threat to peace and security," he said in a statement.
Since longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi was ousted and killed in 2011 after four decades in power, Libya has been held together by a complex array of militias representing different religious, nationalist, and regional interests. However, disagreements over June elections turned Islamist and nationalist factions against each other, triggering an ongoing crisis that has killed hundreds, displaced tens of thousands, and left the country in turmoil.
The elections led to the formation of a new parliament — the Council of Deputies, also referred to as the House of Representatives — that was intended to replace the interim General National Congress (GNC) elected in 2012. However, the Islamic factions dominating the GNC, including the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, did not fare well in recent voting and subsequently refused to accept the Council of Deputies' authority.
A fight for control of the international airport in Tripoli subsequently erupted between the Islamist Libya Dawn and nationalist Zintan militia coalitions in August, leading to the alleged Egyptian and Emirati strikes on Libya Dawn positions there.
Meanwhile, a mixed group of militia, army units, and air force remnants headed by Khalifa Hiftar — a former general who commands the loyalty of most nationalist groups — continues to battle Islamist and extremist fighters in Benghazi, including Ansar al Sharia. Hiftar has also threatened to extend attacks elsewhere in Libya.
Fighting broke out in Benghazi late on Wednesday after a 12-hour humanitarian ceasefire brokered by the UN expired. Heavy clashes were also reported in the west of the country.
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