Saturday 17 March 2018

Libyan general fires warning at Italy over naval ships heading towards coast

Migrants wait to be rescued in the Mediterranean Sea, 30 nautical miles from Libya. Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images
Migrants wait to be rescued in the Mediterranean Sea, 30 nautical miles from Libya. Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

Raf Sanchez

The military strongman in charge of eastern Libya has threatened to confront Italian naval ships that are heading to the Libyan coast to help stop the flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean.

Italy's parliament has authorised the country's navy to carry out the mission, but the presence of Italian ships in Libya's waters prompted angry reactions inside the north African country.

General Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of eastern Libya, threatened to use his own forces to repel the Italians if they came into Libyan sovereign waters.

Gen Haftar's forces are unlikely to open fire on the Italians and risk a confrontation with a major European country.


But the threat may complicate the already delicate Italian mission in Libya and strain relations between Gen Haftar and Libya's UN-backed government in Tripoli.

The warning also reflects broader anger in Libya over the intervention of Italy, a former colonial power that ruled Libya for the first half of the 20th century.

Italy's government said it was sending the two ships to try to curb the flow of migrants and refugees, which has seen 600,000 people arrive in Italy in the past four years.

Migration has become a major political issue in Italy, and the government is under pressure to cut the number of people arriving.

Italy said it was deploying the warships at the request of the UN-backed government in Tripoli and insisted it had no intention of violating Libyan sovereignty.

"There will be no harm done or slight given to Libyan sovereignty, because, if anything, our aim is to strengthen Libyan sovereignty," Roberta Pinotti, the Italian defence minister, told parliament.

But in widespread social media posts, Libyans protested against the Italian presence.

Many posted pictures of Omar al-Mukhtar, a Libyan national hero who fought Italian forces in the early 1900s. One Italian patrol boat has already reached Libyan waters and a second is due to arrive soon.


Human rights campaigners have criticised the Italian naval mission, saying that it would leave people languishing in detention centres in Libya, where they faced potential torture or even death.

"Italy, along with other EU member states, should be focusing on increasing its search and rescue operations," said Amnesty International. "Instead, it has chosen to shirk its responsibilities and endanger the very people it says it is trying to help."

Gen Haftar and the prime minister of the UN-backed government, Fayez al-Sarraj, agreed to a ceasefire deal last week after talks brokered by Emmanuel Macron, the president of France.

Analysts were sceptical that the agreement would end the political chaos in Libya.

The deal gave Gen Haftar permission to continue military operations for counter-terrorism reasons, and the general considers almost all his enemies to be terrorists.

The UN-backed government also has little control over a series of militias that are aligned with it, and may prove too weak to force its side to stop fighting. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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