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Russia expects Libyan PM Sarraj to visit Moscow this month

Libya's Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj addresses a joint news conference with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (unseen) at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Friday that it expected the head of the U.N.-backed Libyan government, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, to visit Moscow this month, the latest sign of Russia’s desire to play a greater role in the divided country.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, told a news briefing that Russia was trying to help ensure Libya held together as a single country and wanted competing factions to resolve their differences through talks, not violence.

“We are carrying out consistent work with both centres of power in Libya,” said Zakharova. “We are trying to encourage them to overcome their internal differences and seek compromises on all contentious questions.”

Last month, Russia welcomed Khalifa Haftar, a prominent commander in eastern Libya, on board one of its warships.

Haftar, who visited Moscow last year, is a figurehead for east Libyan factions who harbours national ambitions, and his renewed engagement with Russia comes at a time when the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli that he has shunned is once more in crisis.

Western officials see the U.N.-backed government as a way to stabilise Libya, which has been caught in fighting and rivalry among competing armed factions since the 2011 civil war that toppled veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Opponents of Haftar, head of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), worry that his engagement with Russia is an attempt to challenge the fragile U.N.-backed government.

An official and a military source said on Wednesday that around 70 of Haftar’s soldiers had been sent to Russia for treatment, in one of the first overt signs of cooperation between Moscow and one of Libya’s armed factions.

Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Kevin Liffey