General Khalifa Haftar, the Egypt-linked Libyan military commander, is arriving in Moscow on Saturday for a series of meetings with Russian diplomatic and military figures. The general represents one of major centers of power in the divided country.
Haftar is to meet on Monday Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and possibly some senior officials from the Defense Ministry, Lev Dengov, Russian special envoy for Libya, told RIA Novosti.
“Who and under what circumstances he would meet is, so to speak, not being broadcast yet,” he explained.
It is Haftar’s third trip to Russia. The previous visit was in November 2016, when he also met Lavrov.
The general is a powerful figure in the politics of modern Libya. The country has remained in turmoil since 2011, when a NATO-backed rebellion resulted in the summary execution of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi.
At the moment two groups claiming to be Libya’s national government operate in the country, one based in Tripoli and another one in Tobruk in the east, while independent or semi-independent militias pursue their own goals with little restraint.
Haftar, who commands the loyalty of troops that consider themselves part of the Libyan National Army, backs the government in Tobruk, but remains a largely independent player.
His fight against Islamist forces, including those aligned with Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), won him support of a number of foreign governments despite his record of opposing a UN-recognized government in Tripoli.
The visit comes just after Haftar accused Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister in the Tripoli-based government, of violating the terms of a July peace deal by allowing Italian warships into Libyan territorial waters to tackle trafficking of asylum-seekers.
“Nobody can deploy military assets to our territorial waters without authorizations. It would be an invasion, and it would be our right and duty to defend ourselves, even if it means a conflict with someone much stronger than us. This applies to Italy and any other country,” Haftar told Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera.
He added that Sarraj had no right to authorize the presence of Italian warships near Libya without consulting him first, accusing the PM of not being true to his word.
“His problem is that it depends on the militias. He does not have a regular army like ours,” Haftar said, adding that this is why Tripoli fails to tackle the problem of people smugglers.
Commenting on his upcoming visit to Moscow, the general remarked that Russia has historical ties with Libya and has “no intention of building a military base” in the eastern part of the country, where Haftar has his power base.
Dengov said Russia is involved in mediation between Haftar and Sarraj, who visited Moscow in early March.
“Russia’s position on the issue it that we should talk to all sides of the conflict. On our part we are trying to help the parties agree and bring peace to Libya,” the Russian diplomat said.