Libya is pursuing suspects in the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi who have fled abroad and the government is focusing efforts on improving security, Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur said.
Abushagur, who was named premier this month, said that eight Libyan nationals had been arrested in connection with the assault and that Ansar al-Shariah, an Islamist militia, was one of the groups thought to be involved. Several suspects are currently being sought after crossing the border into Egypt, Abushagur said in an interview today in his office in Tripoli, the capital, vowing that “these crimes will not go unpunished.”
An attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11 left four Americans including the ambassador, Chris Stevens, dead. More than a year since Muammar Qaddafi was toppled, Libya is still mired in political unrest and economic insecurity. The economy contracted by 61 percent last year as oil production and exports were disrupted by the rebellion, according to the International Monetary Fund.
While the country has a “very specific” plan on how to secure the nation, the government currently is unable to force militias that played a key role in the uprising to disarm, Abushagur said. “Security is a top priority for the next three to six months and 70 percent of our efforts are dedicated to stabilizing Libya,” he said.
Libyan officials have blamed the consulate attack on militants taking advantage of unrest stoked by an amateur film made in the U.S. denigrating the Prophet Muhammad. The film sparked protests in several Arab nations, underscoring the challenge the young governments in the so-called Arab Spring nations face in ensuring political stability and economic development while addressing anti-Western sentiment.
Libya’s stability is also threatened by well-armed militias. The country’s previous government under the National Transitional Council, which handed over power to the recently elected General National Congress, was unable to disarm the groups.
“We are very sorry for the deaths of four American nationals on our soil,” he said. “Chris Stevens was a great man and cared for our country.”
Abushagur’s comments come a day ahead of planned mass rallies in the eastern city of Benghazi against the armed groups. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns is due to meet him later today in “a show of strength and cooperation with the Libyans against extremists and others who want to derail the democratic process,” Abushagur said.
Burns, Abushagur and the Cabinet were due to attend a memorial service for Stevens and the three other Americans today in Tripoli.
“We have made concrete efforts to achieve a great deal of security in the country,” Abushagur said, adding that he was waiting for the full report on the attack on the consulate and nearby safe house to which the Americans had fled before their deaths.
He said authorities believe that as many as 100 people attacked the consulate, though “only 10 to 15 were carrying weapons.” Ansar al-Shariah, which advocates the establishment of an Islamist state in Libya, has denied involvement in the attack.
Speaking to reporters in Tripoli today, Burns stressed “the determination of the U.S. to do exactly what Chris Stevens tried so hard to do, and that is to help Libyans realize the promise of the revolution and to not allow it to be hijacked by extremists.”
Abushagur, 61, moved in the 1970s to the U.S., where he earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. He returned to Libya in March 2011, working as an adviser to the National Transitional Council. He was named deputy prime minister in November and was declared the first elected prime minister-designate in the modern history of Libya on Sept. 12.
“The new Cabinet has to be formed and presented to the General National Congress by Sept. 30,” said Abushagur. “There is a 10-day period to finalize the choice of ministers.”
One critical task facing Abushagur will be to stabilize the economy, which continues to be affected by unrest and protests. An air traffic control strike at Tripoli on Sept. 16 forced airspace over the city to be shut down for roughly a day.
“We want to create a business-friendly environment and will be reviewing many of the laws that are currently in place,” said Abushagur.
The IMF projects that economic growth will return in 2012 after oil output rebounded to near pre-war levels following the fall of Qaddafi. Oil has typically accounted for more than 70 percent of the country’s GDP and roughly 90 percent of government revenues, according to the organization.
“Libya is at a historic juncture, and the authorities face the twin challenges of stabilizing the economy and responding to the aspirations of the revolution,” the IMF said in a May report. “The short-term challenges are to manage the political transition, normalize the security situation and exercise budget discipline while maintaining macroeconomic stability.”
Abushagur said that none of the current Cabinet ministers were guaranteed jobs in his administration, stressing that “no minister is indispensable.”
“We need ministers who can perform the job they are given,” he said.
Abushagur said the new government will focus on providing basic services to the people, including health care, education and coping with a dilapidated national infrastructure. It will also push to diversify the economy away from oil and create a financial hub for the region, he said.
Libya “has a lot to offer foreign investors and we will create a good business climate,” he said.