By Bel Trew
Russia is planning to arm a Libyan general who has been fighting the western-backed government in Tripoli, according to aides of the strongman.
General Khalifa Hiftar, 73, who has been denounced by the UN-supported government as a terrorist, held high-level talks last week aboard the Russian aircraft carrier stationed in the Mediterranean. In the past seven months he has also met the Russian foreign and defence ministers to seek support and weapons.
Fighters loyal to General Khalifa Hiftar and the rival Libyan parliament recuperate after clashes with Isis in BenghaziABDULLAH DOMA/GETTY IMAGES
The Kremlin backed Muammar Gaddafi during the 2011 uprising and has since taken a key role across the region, ordering the bombing of President Assad’s foes in Syria and throwing its weight behind General Hiftar. Last month Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, criticised the UN and the West for backing rival armed factions in Libya.
General Hiftar’s commanders said the aim of the Russian visits was to secure training and arms, because their fighters were struggling under the arms embargo introduced by the UN during the revolt against Gaddafi. “The Russians trust Hiftar and what he is doing in Libya — fighting Islamic State and terrorism. They know he has a good track record in several wars,” Akram Bouhlaiga, one of the general’s adjutants, said from a base in Benghazi. General Hiftar’s forces have been fighting to retake the city since May 2014.
During the meetings aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov General Hiftar spoke by video link to Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, about counterterrorism efforts, Mr Bouhlaiga said. Russia promised to lobby the UN to drop the weapons embargo, while General Hiftar presented a list of equipment his men needed, he added.
“General Hiftar spoke about getting further help from the Russians. They were talking about renewing co-operation agreements. They want to reinforce and train the army.
“Russia sees Libya as a strategic country in north Africa and the Middle East, and ending Isis here would help to secure the region and the Mediterranean. The security of Libya is vital to Moscow,” he said.
A member of the Libyan National Army carries an injured comrade ABDULLAH DOMA/GETTY IMAGES
The general, who backs the country’s rival parliament based in eastern Libya, has rejected the Government of National Accord (GNA) since it took office in Tripoli last March.
Britain and the US had hoped that the GNA would bring all warring factions together to end the conflict but it has failed to gain the approval of the rival parliament in the east that is fiercely loyal to General Hiftar. Ahmed Mismari, a spokesman for the general, said last month that he had ordered his troops to “liberate the capital”.
In western Libya, forces loyal to the GNA and which ousted Isis from its stronghold in Sirte said that if Russia armed General Hiftar, the civil war would be prolonged and terrorism encouraged. “Hiftar proved to the world that he is a terrorist and that he is an ally to Isis. If anyone wants to help Libya they should help the people, not Hiftar,” Brigadier-General Mahmoud Zaghlal said.
He said his men were forced to fight Isis with old weapons and no bullet-proof jackets or helmets, resulting in heavy casualties. “We are the legitimate force in the country. We defeated Isis in Sirte and we will keep on fighting and protecting our country no matter how poorly equipped we are,” he said.
The GNA, plagued by resignations and boycotts, has struggled to retain its grip on the capital. It said that Islamist militias that had attempted a takeover last week had failed.
Bel Trew – Cairo-based Middle East reporter for The Times.