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Libyan general Khalifa Haftar visits Russian aircraft carrier

Libyan strongman welcomed aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov in Mediterranean, speaks via video link with Russian defence minister
Marshal Khalifa Haftar arrives in Benghazi after his visit in Russia on 3 December 2016 (AFP)

Eastern Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar was given a tour of a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean on Wednesday, 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 President Bashar al-Assad.

Haftar was welcomed on board the aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, as it was on 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 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.

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.

“Our relations are crucial, our goal today is to give life to these relations,” the TASS news agency quoted Haftar as saying at the time. “We hope we will eliminate terrorism with your help in the nearest future.”

UN arms embargo

Earlier this month, Haftar claimed that Russia is seeking to end the arms embargo in his country and could supply him with weapons.

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.

Haftar told the Italian Corriere della Sera newspaper that Russia had told him weapons "can arrive only once the (UN) embargo ends" but was assured Putin was seeking that result.

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