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Many Libyans are enraged by HMS Albion's visit to their country

HMS Albion prepared to spends its 1st night at Busita port in Tripoli, Libya [@MFetouri/Twitter]
HMS Albion prepared to spends its 1st night at Busita port in Tripoli, Libya [@MFetouri/Twitter]

The British warship HMS Albion docked in Libya's Abu Sitta port on 28 September, just east of the capital Tripoli, for a routine courtesy visit. This is quite common between armed forces all over the world. However, the visit turned into a public relations disaster for the Government of National Unity headed by Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibeh when Albion attracted too many negative comments and accusations about a government that already lacks credibility after losing a vote of confidence a year ago but is still in office.

HMS Albion prepared to spends its 1st night at Busita port in Tripoli, Libya [@MFetouri/Twitter]

HMS Albion prepared to spends its 1st night at Busita port in Tripoli, Libya [@MFetouri/Twitter]

The same ship visited the port in 2014 but did not create much interest and went away quietly, almost unnoticed by the wider public. That visit was low key and normal, with the ship and crew hosted by the Libyan navy with little media coverage.

This time it was different. The visit was a public show with a lot of media attention alerting the public in a country where such events are not very common. People were enraged by what happened during the visit; hundreds took to social media to vent their anger, frustration and condemnation of the government and the Presidential Council.

The issue revolved around the way that the ship and its crew were received onshore. After docking at the small port, home to Libya's navy, HMS Albion and the British Embassy in Tripoli organised a reception for Libyan officials. The Libyan marines were supposed to be the hosts, but hardly appeared in the media coverage. Instead, we saw government officials on board HSM Albion, with drinks in hand, mingling with the visiting Royal Navy officers. Many claimed, without evidence it must be said, that alcohol was served to the guests in a country where the sale and drinking of alcohol is illegal.

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The Royal Navy said on its website that around "a hundred Libyan and foreign dignitaries were hosted aboard Albion, along with His Majesty's Ambassador to Libya, Ms Caroline Hurdall [sic]and the Defence Senior Advisor to the Middle East, Air Marshall Martin Sampson, Royal Air Force." Sampson was later received by Prime Minister Dbeibeh, enraging the public even more. The ambassador's surname is actually Hurndall, not "Hurdall", and she has been a controversial figure since arriving in Libya last year. Many Libyans accuse her of meddling in the country's domestic affairs and moving around the country at liberty. Last December, Libya's Tobruk parliament declared her to be "persona non grata" and asked the foreign ministry to expel her from the country. In August this year some fifty Libyan lawmakers accused Hurndall of "interfering in Libyan affairs" because of comments that she made. The ambassador has not left Libya simply because the foreign ministry has never asked her to go. Among the Libyan officials invited to the Albion reception were Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush; the two deputies of the Presidential Council, Musa Al-Koni and Abdullah Al-Lafi; the governor of the Central Bank, Sadiq Al-Kabir; and at least one Member of Parliament. Some other foreign ambassadors also attended.

Who benefited from the Libya conference in Berlin? - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Who benefited from the Libya conference in Berlin? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Libyans remember HMS Albion's role in 2011 when a NATO-led air campaign was launched against Libya and effectively destroyed much of the country, toppled the regime of Muammar Gaddafi and plunged Libya into the chaos from which it still suffers today. At the height of the Western intervention in the Libyan civil war, the British warship patrolled just outside Libyan territorial waters near the Gulf of Sidra. It was the flagship of what the Royal Navy describes as the Response Task Force Group stationed in the Mediterranean during the 2011 Arab Spring to respond to any emergencies.

In its November 2011 report, the UK parliamentary Defence Committee confirmed that HMS Albion took part in operations against Libya. Different reports say that the assault ship was involved in bombing Sirte during the final days of the war, but the Royal Navy described the ship's role as controlling "aircraft of the NATO-led coalition from the sea using her sophisticated air surveillance technology."Many Libyans believe that HMS Albion bombed targets in and around Sirte in 2011 to help the rebels win the final episode of the war and take control of the country. The presence of the same warship in Tripoli's port and being welcomed by scores of Libya politicians was not something that many Libyan citizens welcomed. The government has been accused of betraying the people of Libya. Social media users objected to the fact that this particular ship was welcomed to Tripoli despite the fact that it took part in the destruction of their country in 2011.

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Britain used to have a military base in Tobruk in the 1960s; it was closed by Gaddafi in March 1970, and he declared the day to be a national day of liberation from foreign domination. One Twitter user condemned Albion's visit by showing a photograph of the UK flag was being lowered in 1970 alongside a photo showing the same flag being raised in Tripoli's port last week to celebrate the arrival of the warship.

Foreign Minister El-Mangoush was mocked on social media for her own post in which she tweeted that the presence of HSM Albion in Libyan waters "confirms the deep relations" between the UK and Libya. The minister added that the ship's visit highlights British "efforts in supporting stability" in the North African country. A barrage of tweets posted in response asked how the ship's visit helped stability in Libya.

According to some political commentators, HMS Albion's visit was a sign that Britain still supports Dbeibeh's government. Even after the parliament fired Dbeibeh and replaced him with Fathi Bashagha, the UK ambassador in Tripoli has on several occasions expressed that support, enraging many Libyans further.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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