World News

Libyan commander visits Russia to ask for help fighting Islamists

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, the dominant figure in the divided country’s east, met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday and said he was seeking Moscow’s help in his fight against Islamist militants at home.

Slideshow ( 4 images )

Haftar, on his second visit to Moscow since the summer, requested military support from the Kremlin in September, according to Russian media. It was unclear on Tuesday if such help would be forthcoming.

“Our relations are crucial, our goal today is to give life to these relations,” the TASS news agency quoted Haftar as saying at the start of talks with Lavrov.

“We hope we will eliminate terrorism with your help in the nearest future.”

Libya splintered into rival political and armed groupings after the uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and remains deeply divided between factions based in the east and west that back rival governments and parliaments.

Haftar, who is aligned with the eastern parliament and government, has been fighting a two-year military campaign with his Libyan National Army against Islamists and other opponents in Benghazi and elsewhere in the east.

Many suspect he seeks national power.

Donning a Russian fur hat as he entered the snow-lashed foreign ministry, Haftar told Lavrov he had met Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Monday to tell him about his military needs.

Haftar has received public backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and France sent special forces to work alongside Haftar’s Libyan National Army earlier this year. Recent military advances by Haftar’s forces have boosted his popularity at home.

A U.N. arms embargo in place since 2011 prohibits the transfer of weapons into Libya. Only the country’s U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, which Haftar opposes, can bring in weapons and related materiel with the approval of a U.N. Security Council committee.

When asked, the Kremlin did not say whether it might offer Haftar any military support, describing the talks with him as business as usual.

“Moscow is in touch with various Libyan representatives and contacts with Haftar take place as part of this process,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday.

Haftar’s allies have previously cultivated ties with Russia, which printed banknotes for an eastern breakaway branch of Libya’s central bank.

“We spoke in general,” Haftar told reporters after the talks with Lavrov.

“We explained our position with regards to arms supplies. As a great country, Russia respects the arms embargo until it indicates it is an unjust verdict.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed the West for pursuing policies that he said led to civil wars in Libya and Syria. Russia launched a military operation to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last year.

Additional reporting by Aidan Lewis in Tunis; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Richard Lough