BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - A Russian envoy in rebel-held Benghazi on Tuesday said Moscow wanted to help bridge the rift in Libya, stepping up Kremlin efforts to play a prominent role in resolving the conflict.
“Some are looking to Benghazi, some are looking to Tripoli. Russia sees its task as building a bridge between these two banks on which Libyan society now stands,” said Mikhail Margelov, President Dmitry Medvedev’s special envoy to Africa.
At a G8 summit last month, Medvedev joined Western partners in urging Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to step down, offered Russia’s services as a mediator and said he was sending Margelov to Libya, initially to Benghazi.
Analysts say Russia wants to preserve its influence in a country where it had billions of dollars in arms, energy and railroad deals.
“Russia has a unique situation in Libya now: We did not sever relations with Tripoli, we have established relations with Benghazi,” Margelov told Russia’s state-run Rossiya-24 television upon arrival in Benghazi.
“We are ready, if it’s possible, to act as middlemen in establishing an internal Libyan political dialogue. Russia is ready to help politically, economically and in any possible way,” Margelov told a media conference in Benghazi.
“We ... believe that Gaddafi has lost his legitimacy after the first bullet shot against the Libyan people,” he said, adding democracy in Libya would be achieved through elections that would take place after the civil war ends.
Medvedev had said he hoped Margelov would have the opportunity to speak with both sides, but that he did not travel to Tripoli on this visit. He left for Cairo after his talks, Russian media reported.
Margelov met Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel national council, Russian media said. He was also to have met Ali Tarhouni, the rebel minister of oil and finance, to discuss the financial situation and more effective aid.
Russia supported an initial U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Gaddafi’s government but abstained in the March vote on a second resolution that authorized military intervention. It has accused the Western coalition conducting air strikes of going beyond its mandate to protect civilians.
Rebels fighting to end Gaddafi’s four-decade rule control the east of Libya from their stronghold in Benghazi, the western city of Misrata and the mountains near the border with Tunisia. They have been unable to advance on Tripoli against Gaddafi’s better-equipped forces.
The Libyan capital and vicinity has come under increased attack from NATO bombing in recent days.
In Oslo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow is not seeking the leading role in Libyan mediation and emphasized the importance of African Union efforts.
Reporting by Sherine El Madany in Benghazi, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Walter Gibbs in Oslo; Editing by Louise Ireland and Janet Lawrence