UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Russia accused Libya during a U.N. Security Council meeting on Wednesday of running a training center for Syrian rebels and arming the fighters in their battle to overthrow the country’s President Bashar al-Assad.
“We have received information that in Libya, with the support of the authorities, there is a special training center for the Syrian revolutionaries and people are sent to Syria to attack the legal government,” Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told the U.N. Security Council.
“This is completely unacceptable ... This activity is undermining stability in the Middle East,” said Churkin, who also questioned whether “the export of revolution” was “turning into the export of terrorism.”
In Syria, security forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians during an 11-month crackdown on pro-democracy protests, according to the United Nations, and the outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing. Russia and China have twice used vetoes to block action by the U.N. Security Council.
Pro-democracy protests in the region, dubbed the Arab Spring, have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Russia, which is Syria’s main arms supplier and has use of a naval base there, has also repeatedly voiced anger over NATO air strikes that helped Libyan rebels drive Muammar Gaddafi from power last year and on Wednesday Churkin demanded that NATO recognize it caused civilian casualties and pay compensation.
Rights groups have said several dozen civilians were killed by NATO air strikes in Libya.
While Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib did not respond to Churkin’s accusation that Libya was training Syrian rebels, he told the U.N. Security Council that Libya has already investigated the deaths of all civilians during the fighting.
“I hope that the reason for raising this matter will not be to impede or prevent the international community from interfering in the situation of other states where their peoples are being massacred and killed at the hands of their rulers,” Keib said.
Libya said last month that it would donate $100 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian opposition and allow them to open an office in Tripoli.
Libya was one of the first foreign states to recognize the Syrian National Council as the country’s legitimate authority in October - a gesture it said showed solidarity after Libya’s own struggle to oust Gaddafi and end 42 years of autocratic rule.
“The world should help the Syrian people because they have seen that things are moving forward in our case and before that in Egypt and before that in Tunisia,” Keib told the International Peace Institute earlier on Wednesday.
“They might find it needs to be treated differently (to Libya), but definitely the objective is to help the Syrian people gain their freedom,” he said.
Keib also spoke about the challenges facing Libya as it builds a democracy. He said that now was not the time for Libya’s eastern Cyrenaica province, home to most of the country’s oil, to be pushing for greater autonomy.
Several thousand delegates in the eastern city of Benghazi announced on Tuesday that they were setting up a council to run Cyrenaica - birthplace a year ago of the rebellion that ousted Gaddafi - in defiance of the government in Tripoli.
The National Transitional Council (NTC), the body internationally recognized as Libya’s post-Gaddafi leadership, is already struggling to assert its authority over militias and towns which pay little heed to Tripoli.
“This is not the time. I know some of the people who are doing this ... I guarantee you, this is a minority,” Keib told the International Peace Institute.
Moves toward greater autonomy in the province may worry international oil companies because it raises the prospect of them having to renegotiate their contracts with a new entity.
Cyrenaica stretches westwards from the Egyptian border to the Sirte, half-way along Libya’s Mediterranean coastline. When Gaddafi came to power in a military coup in 1969, eastern Libya was sidelined for the next four decades. Residents complain that they have been denied a fair share of the country’s oil wealth.
Keib said the government plans to decentralize operations with offices in Benghazi and Sahba and move departments to different areas of the country, adding that once democracy had been established “if the people decide they want to have a federal government and different states then that’s their call.”
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Eric Beech