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US sanctions head of Libya's Islamist-backed government

WASHINGTON – The United States imposed sanctions on Tuesday on the head of Libya’s Islamist-backed government in Tripoli, accusing him of threatening stability in Libya and undermining the new U.N.-brokered unity government.

The sanctions targeting Prime Minister Khalifa Ghweil of the so-called National Salvation Government are the first under new authorities granted by President Barack Obama, who cited an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. security and foreign policy interests. The Treasury Department penalties freeze Ghweil’s property in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with him.

“We will oppose attempts to undermine or destabilize the Government of National Accord at this critical time,” said Adam Szubin, who heads the Treasury’s terrorism and financial intelligence branch.

Obama cleared the path to the sanctions earlier Tuesday with an executive order authorizing penalties against anyone deemed to be standing in the way of the unity government. The Obama administration said urgent humanitarian needs and security concerns prompted the president to seek to accelerate the peaceful transfer of power.

Libya has slid into chaos since the 2011 death of strongman Moammar Gadhafi, with two rival governments fighting for control: the Islamist-backed government in Tripoli and another government based in the east that was internationally recognized.

Western nations hope the new U.N.-backed unity government can unite the country and create the stability needed to slow the flow of migrants into Europe and take on growing threats from the Islamic State group and other extremists. IS has taken over the Libyan central city of Sirte and carried out deadly attacks in Libya, alarming signs for the U.S. as it struggles to contain the militant group within Iraq and Syria.

But talks to get the unity government up and running have been slow to make progress. European Union nations, in a bid to shore up the fledgling government, have floated moving their naval mission targeting human smugglers close to Libya to help the beleaguered country fight illegal migration.

The European Union sanctioned Ghweil and two other Libyan officials earlier in April.

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Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP.