MOSCOW: Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar in Moscow on Wednesday, Russian media reported, signalling Kremlin support ahead of a conference aimed at settling the north African country’s years of strife.
Russia’s military has long shown backing for the powerful Libyan commander, who dominates eastern Libya.
He has visited Russia before, and last year the Russian Defense Ministry hosted him aboard its sole aircraft carrier.
Shoigu and Haftar discussed the Libyan crisis and the security situation in the Middle East and North Africa, Russian news agencies said, citing a defense ministry statement, without giving details.
Italy will host an international conference on Libya on Monday and Tuesday, which Haftar will attend, Italy has said.
Haftar’s office said the meeting in Moscow had covered ways to end Libya’s crisis and the fight against terrorism.
Russia is expected to send high-level representatives to the Palermo meeting.
The international community formally backs the transitional government in Tripoli, but Egypt and the UAE have lent Haftar support and European states including France courted Haftar as his power grew.
UN efforts to stabilize Libya have long been undercut by the divergent agendas of foreign powers.
France has vied for influence with Italy, which has sought to protect its oil and gas interests and stem the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, by building ties in Tripoli.
In recent weeks, Western powers and the UN have quietly stopped talking about the election in December, without formally declaring it dead.
In May, France had persuaded major players in the North African country to verbally agree to elections on Dec. 10 as a way of ending repeated rounds of bloodshed between competing factions.
But weeks of fighting between rival militias in Tripoli and deadlock between rump parliaments in Tripoli and the east has made that goal unrealistic, Western officials argue.
Shelving the plans for presidential and parliamentary elections is the latest setback for Western powers.
Instead of pushing for a vote as a short-term goal, UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame was focusing in a briefing to the UN Security Council on Thursday on staging a national conference next year and fixing the economy, diplomats said.
The conference would aim to forge consensus in a country divided between hundreds of armed groups controlling mostly minimal territory, towns, tribes and regions.
Salame plans to push again for economic reforms to end a system benefiting armed groups that have access to cheap dollars due to their power over banks.
Salame is the sixth UN special envoy for Libya since 2011.
Diplomats say delayed reforms introduced in Tripoli in September, including a fee on purchases of foreign currency, can only partially ease Libya’s economic woes as long as the central bank remains divided and predatory factions retain their positions.
The reforms have so far done little to improve conditions for ordinary Libyans hit by steep inflation and a cash crisis linked to the fall of the dinar on the black market.
For the militias, the sources said Salame would outline a new “security arrangement” for Tripoli aimed at depriving them of control of key sites and integrating their members into regular forces — something that has proved elusive in the past.
Talks to unify rival camps launched in September 2017, shortly after Salame took up his post, ground to a halt after one month with Haftar’s role a key sticking point. Many in western Libya oppose him, fearing he could use the position to seize power.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army says it is committed to the election process, in which Haftar himself is a possible candidate.