Eastern Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar was given a tour of a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean today, Russian media reported, a show of Kremlin support for the faction leader who opposes Libya’s UN-backed government.
Russia’s courting of Haftar, who some Libyans see as the strongman their country needs after years of instability, has prompted some to draw parallels with Syria, where the Kremlin stepped into a chaotic civil war to prop up the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.
Haftar was welcomed on board the aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, as it was en route from the coast off Syria, where it has been taking part in operations, back through the Mediterranean to Russia.
He was greeted by the ship’s officers, given a tour, then spoke via video-conference from one of the ship’s wardrooms with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s RIA news agency cited the defence ministry as saying.
“They discussed pressing issues in the fight against international terrorist groups in the Middle East,” the agency quoted the ministry as saying.
Libya splintered into rival political and armed groupings after the uprising that toppled long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. It 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, and accuse him of having links to the United States’ CIA.
In November last year he met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow and asked for Russia’s help in fighting Islamist militants at home. The Kremlin has not said if it will offer Haftar military support.
A UN arms embargo in place since 2011 prohibits the transfer of weapons into Libya. Only the country’s UN-backed government in Tripoli, which Haftar opposes, can bring in weapons and related materiel with the approval of a UN Security Council committee.
However, this has not prevented a flourishing black market of arms traders and weapons smugglers from transferring weapons to a variety of different factions, including Haftar.