* Libyan council defies moves to keep them out of Tripoli
* Seraj sees challenges in “uniting Libyans and healing divisions”
* Western powers offer support, urge Libyan factions to cooperate (Adds clashes, channel being taken off air)
By Hani Amara
TRIPOLI, March 30 (Reuters) - Members of Libya’s U.N.-backed Presidential Council reached Tripoli by ship on Wednesday, defying attempts to keep them out of the city and prevent them from installing a unity government.
Seven members of the Council including Fayez Seraj, its head and the new government’s prime minister, arrived from Tunisia at Tripoli’s Abusita naval base amid tight security.
The situation in Tripoli remains volatile, and hours after their arrival clashes erupted between supporters and opponents of the Council. A key TV channel that backs a separate, self-declared government in Tripoli was taken off air.
A self-declared government and armed groups that back it had warned the Council and the unity government not to travel to the capital.
Tripoli’s airspace was closed for several hours on Sunday and Monday, a move the Council said was designed to prevent it from reaching Libya.
Seraj told Reuters that the council members had travelled in a Libyan navy vessel from the Tunisian port of Sfax, a 12-hour journey.
“There are challenges ahead of us, including uniting Libyans and healing divisions,” he said after arriving. He later made a brief statement saying the government would release a programme in the coming days.
“We will work for a ceasefire across Libya, for national reconciliation and the return of displaced people, and we will seek to confront Islamic State,” he said.
The government of national accord (GNA) emerged from a U.N.-mediated deal signed in December aimed at ending the country’s political impasse, resolving its armed conflict and tackling a growing threat from Islamic State jihadists.
Western powers have recognised it as Libya’s sole legitimate government, but it has faced opposition in both eastern and western Libya.
Since 2014 Libya has had two competing pairs of parliaments and governments, both backed by loose alliances of armed brigades. The government in Tripoli was brought to power by armed factions that won a battle for control of the capital in 2014.
Ahead of its arrival, the Council said it had negotiated a security plan with police and military forces in Tripoli, and with some armed groups.
The road outside the naval base was heavily secured with checkpoints and armoured vehicles on Wednesday.
In the evening, however, there were clashes between the Nawasi brigade, which supports the Council, and armed opponents, said Abdulrahman Taweel, a brigadier general in charge of the Council’s security.
He said one Nawasi member was killed and three were wounded in the fighting, during which heavy gunfire could be heard close the seafront west of the city centre.
In a further sign of tension Al Nabaa, an influential Islamist leaning TV channel that backs the self-declared government, was taken off air.
Once the channel stopped broadcasting a screen caption could be seen saying: “A number of youths and revolutionaries shut down the channel because it incited killing and sedition in Libya. Anyone who reopens the channel will face prosecution.”
The Council has called for an immediate transfer of power to the unity government, though both the Tripoli and eastern-based governments oppose this.
The unity government’s 18 members have so far failed to secure a vote of approval from Libya’s eastern, internationally-recognised parliament, as required under the U.N.-mediated deal, and Fathi al-Mrimi, a spokesman for eastern parliament’s president, said its arrival was “premature”.
“They have entered by force under foreign protection, and Libyans won’t accept anything imposed on them by force,” he told Reuters.
U.N. Libya envoy Martin Kobler welcomed the Council’s arrival, saying the international community was “ready to provide the required support and assistance”, and that all Libyan security actors had a responsibility to ensure its safety.
The EU, as well as the French, British and Italian foreign ministers also greeted the move.
“We stand ready to respond positively to requests for support and assistance from the GNA to help them restore stability to Libya, rebuild the economy, fight Daesh (IS) and tackle the criminal gangs that threaten the security of Libyans and exploit illegal migrants,” said British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. (Additional reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli and Ahmed Elumami; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Andrew Hay)