Rival Libyan Factions Travel to Kiev and Moscow Seeking Support

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A fighter from armed group Operation Dawn fires a weapon during clashes with rival group the Zintan brigade, on the outskirts of the city of Kklh, southwest of Tripoli October 21, 2014. Reuters

Libyan politicians from rival factions have travelled to Ukraine and Russia in the hope of bolstering ties with Kiev and Moscow, according to the Libya Herald.

A hardline politician from the Islamist Libya Dawn group, Abdurrahman Sewehli, who fiercely opposed the creation of the internationally-recognised government and House of Representatives (HoR) legislature in eastern Libya, was pictured meeting with Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin in Kiev yesterday.

The Libya Herald report - which also reveals that former Libyan foreign minister and representative of the HoR President, Mohamed Abdulaziz, travelled to Moscow to allegedly bolster military relations with Russia - cites sources claiming Sewehli made the trip to Ukraine in order to “acquire arms and munitions from Ukraine for Libya Dawn” that would convert two Soviet-era MiG 23 aircrafts into fully-functionable fighter jets, although Newsweek was unable to independently verify these claims.

Any potential negotiations between the Ukrainian government and a Libyan politician aligned to a non-state actor would contravene the United Nations arms embargo placed on Libya in September 2011 following the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

There is a long-standing relationship between Libya and Russia, with the Soviet Union supplying arms to Tripoli throughout the 1980s. According to former British ambassador to Libya Sir Richard Dalton, some of the factories which produced planes sold to the Gaddafi regime, which may have ended up in the hands of non-government forces in Libya, are located in what is today independent Ukraine.

When asked about the unverified reports that Sewehli travelled to the Ukrainian capital to secure arms, an NGO worker familiar with the situation on the ground in Libya, speaking on condition of anonymity, said such negotiations would not be unexpected: “I think there is some truth in it. Everyone seems to bypass the arms embargo and no one is respecting it.”

“It’s surprising that someone like [Sewehli] is able to travel and leave Libya at will,” they added. “Why would a hardline Libya Dawn commander and politician be there? You can get some political support but I would assume that weapons are part of the deal.”

The United States refuses to recognise the Libya Dawn-backed General National Congress (GNC) and instead supports the internationally-recognised parliament, situated in the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk, which Abdulaziz’s HoR is aligned to.

“The United States government does not recognise the Government of National Salvation [another name for the GNC] in Libya, and is not engaged with any person purporting to act on behalf of [GNC leader] Omar al-Hassi or the GNS,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters last month.

Therefore, any negotiations centred on arms dealings between Russian officials and Abdulaziz in Moscow would not contravene the UN arms embargo.

Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher at the Arms Transfers and Arms Production Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says that the United Nations embargo on Libya, as implemented by UNSC resolution 2174, specifically determines that any party that wishes to supply arms to Libya can only do so if it is to the “recognised authorities” - which rules out Libya Dawn - and if they have received approval from the Sanctions Committee which must be notified of any arms transfers beforehand.

“If [Ukraine supplied weapons to Libya Dawn] they would be in breach of the UN embargo and I think the U.S. would be particularly unhappy about that and the EU too. It certainly would not make people happy and it would undermine [Ukraine’s] credibility,” says Wezeman.

“If they were to even negotiate [on arms with Libya Dawn] then they would already be out of line. These embargos stipulate that you are not allowed to be involved in any way the transfer of arms to anyone else but the Libyan authorities.”

Sir Richard Dalton, says that “arms dealers salivate” over power vacuums such as the one in Libya where conflict is raging and the the idea that weapons may find their way to Libya from outside powers are concerning.

“I would find any external arms supply highly negative because I don’t think either side can win militarily and we want to see the fighting dampened down in order to support the calls for ceasefires,” he said.

If confirmed, Dalton says he would “expect Western countries to speak to Kiev and say ‘please do not fall into this trap because your arms dealers might make a buck but it's going to be negative”.

The reports come at a time when German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have flown to Kiev and Moscow to seek a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Ukraine’s restive eastern regions. Wezeman warns that any dealings with non-state actors such as Libya Dawn “would only undermine their international standing” when it needs support from the international community.

Libya continues to be beset by unrest as rival militias vie for control of the eastern city of Benghazi against the Operation Dignity forces of former Libyan military commander General Haftar. Last month, ISIS’s branch in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, launched an attack on the Corinthia hotel, regularly frequented by Westerners, killing nine people - including five foreign nationals.