Russia Urges Calm After Libya Strongman It Backs Takes Oil Ports

  • Libyans should avoid risk of escalating conflict, Russia says
  • Haftar’s army retook oil facilities held by UN-backed forces

Russia urged restraint after a powerful Libyan military commander that it supports regained control of key oil facilities taken by forces loyal to the United Nations-backed government.

“We urge all the conflicting Libyan sides to show common sense and to refrain from the use of force to avoid the danger of escalation of civil conflict,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow on Thursday.

Troops loyal to Khalifa Haftar, the eastern Libyan commander who’s in conflict with the UN-backed government in the capital, Tripoli, recaptured the country’s biggest port, Es Sider, and its third-largest, Ras Lanuf, on Tuesday after weeks of clashes that curbed oil production.

The fighting, including airstrikes, dealt a blow to international efforts to restore stability in the country that has Africa’s largest crude reserves. The ports had been seized by a rival group earlier this month that passed control of them to the government, which urged Haftar’s army not to bomb the oil facilities.

Russian ‘Influence’

Libya has become the latest focus for Russia’s efforts to strengthen its position in the Middle East and wider region after its military intervention in Syria bolstered its ally President Bashar al-Assad. The Kremlin has wooed Haftar, inviting him aboard a Russian warship in January and hosting the military chief in Moscow in November for talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia says it’s trying to encourage reconciliation in Libya, and it held talks with Prime Minister Fatez al-Serraj, Haftar’s rival, in Moscow earlier this month.

The top American military commander responsible for Africa, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, told a U.S. Senate committee hearing last week that Haftar must play a “constructive role” in Libya, where the fragile government has little sway outside the capital. Russia’s seeking to “influence” who controls Libya in the future and “it is very concerning,” he said.

The ambassadors of the U.S., U.K., France and Italy condemned the hostilities surrounding Libya’s oil facilities in a joint statement on Tuesday that said the ports “must remain under the exclusive control” of the national oil company.

Arms Contracts

The speaker of the eastern-based Libyan Parliament, Aguilah Saleh, who supports Haftar, said that the military commander had asked Russia to send experts to train troops and repair weapons in an interview published Tuesday to the Russian state news service RIA Novosti. “They promised to help us in the fight against terrorism,” said Saleh, who offered to restore arms contracts with Russia signed by the late Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi, according to RIA.

Haftar, 73, is a one-time ally of Qaddafi. Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned as a “crusade” the NATO-led military campaign that overthrew the Libyan leader in 2011, and which cost Russia at least $4 billion in lost arms deals as well as billions more in energy and transport contracts.

Lavrov on Tuesday said the Tripoli government is incapable even of securing the capital, which was rocked by three days of clashes this week with tanks in the streets. “The attempts to present the Libyan situation as already settled, which does not presuppose the need for a national dialogue between all the key players, are appalling,” he said.

The Kremlin will increase its support for Haftar, including by deploying military advisers and permitting shipments of Russian weapons from Egypt, though it won’t directly violate a UN arms embargo on Libya, said Oleg Bulaev, a specialist on Libya at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.

“Russia is utterly disenchanted with the government in Tripoli because it can’t carry out even its basic functions,” he said.

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