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Libya’s Prime Minister Says Russia Mercenaries Will Drag Out War

Samer Khalil Al-Atrush

(Bloomberg) -- Libya’s internationally recognized prime minister said Russian mercenaries backing his rival, Khalifa Haftar, will drag out a months-long war in the North African oil producer, and urged the U.S. to act to restore peace.

Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj said he had raised the matter with Russian officials during an October conference in Sochi. “We expressed our concern over the increase of foreign fighters in Libya in general, that this would increase the duration of the war,” Sarraj said in an interview in Tripoli on Wednesday.

Hundreds of mercenaries with the Russian Wagner group, headed by President Vladimir Putin’s associate Yevgeny Prigozhin, are fighting alongside Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army in a stalled offensive to take the capital, Tripoli, and dislodge Sarraj’s government, according to Western and Russian officials. Russia and Haftar’s Libyan National Army officially deny the presence of mercenaries in Libya.

Libya has been wracked by violence ever since the NATO-backed ouster of Moammar Qaddafi in 2011. The years of instability that followed allowed Libya to become a breeding ground for Islamist radicals, and a magnet for migrants hoping to reach Europe. Haftar launched his campaign on Tripoli just as the United Nations was laying the groundwork for a conference meant to reunited the divided country, which has dueling governments in Tripoli and another in Tobruk allied with Haftar.

Wagner troops had fought in Ukraine and Syria before deploying in September to Libya. A person close to the Kremlin told Bloomberg at the time that Russia was distancing itself from the administration in Tripoli and expected Haftar, who already controls eastern and southern Libya and much of its oil fields, to gain the upper hand after his initial failure to push into the capital in April.

“These security companies are private companies but we all know that in those states, such companies do not act without the permission of their governments,” Sarraj said. He said he’s also raised concerns about billions of Libyan dinars printed in Russia and supplied to Haftar and the Tobruk government.

‘Financing war’

“This is a method of financing the war,” he said, noting Malta’s seizure of a ship carrying Libyan banknotes believed to have been destined for Haftar.

By throwing its weight behind the commander, Russia joins a crowded field of regional powers that have intervened to support either side. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have backed Haftar, while Turkey supports Sarraj’s government.

The U.S. has mostly watched from the sidelines as the conflict raged in the country that sits on top of Africa’s largest proven oil reserves. It’s sent muddled messages about its Libya policy, officially calling for a cease-fire even as President Donald Trump indicated support for Haftar by taking a phone call with him in the midst of the commander’s April assault on Tripoli.

“The United States as a democratic country holds the banner of defending human rights. It has to intervene to stop the aggressor’s militias from committing systematic violations against civilians,” Sarraj said, calling on Washington to “participate in a clear manner in restoring security and stability.”

More than 1,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

The UN is leading talks for a fall conference in Berlin that would call for a cease-fire and include countries that back both sides. Sarraj said his government would accept a truce if Haftar’s forces withdrew, and hold elections.

The talks leading up the Berlin summit, which has yet to be scheduled, also include negotiations of economic reforms, including transparency in the country’s main financial institutions that would partly address key grievances in the east. Sarraj said his government had already begun to enact reforms.

But “there can be no economic reforms when a whole parallel currency is being printed,” he said referring to the Russian-minted dinars.

To contact the reporter on this story: Samer Khalil Al-Atrush in Cairo at skhalilalatr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lin Noueihed at lnoueihed@bloomberg.net, Amy Teibel, Mark Williams

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