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7th Mar 2021

Malta fiddles on migrants, as Libya burns

  • Maltese prime minister Robert Abela (l) with Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli last week (Photo: malta.gov)

Malta's new prime minister was recently in war-torn Tripoli to strike deals on migrants, as Libya continues to fall apart.

The Maltese delegation flew in to Mitiga airport at 9AM on the morning of 28 May, drove in a convoy to the city centre to meet the EU and UN-recognised Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj, signed a new deal to help stop migrants coming to Europe, and flew out again at 3PM.

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The migrant deal appears to be limited to opening two "coordination" offices, one in Malta and one in Libya, with Malta declining to give more details.

It comes as Maltese prime minister Robert Abela wrestles with a series of accusations on how his navy mistreated migrant boats in recent weeks.

Malta, a micro-state of less than half a million people, already hosts about 50,000 migrants and wants more EU solidarity.

But on the the other hand, Libya, which is home to some 800,000 irregular migrants, has been accused of gross violations of human rights in detention centres, with the UN saying it was not safe to send people back.

Abela also discussed the pandemic and arms smuggling on his short trip.

And Tripoli itself appeared peaceful on the day.

"I saw a few buildings marked by shells or bullets, but the city was quiet and we couldn't hear any sounds of fighting," a source on the Maltese delegation told EUobserver.

But Abela did see, first hand, what the war was like when he drove past the remains of passenger planes and helicopters in a field adjacent to Mitiga airport, which had been destroyed by shelling not long before his arrival.

Shells recently struck the vicinity of the Italian embassy.

And three days after Abela flew out, fresh salvos fired by the forces of a Russian-backed warlord, Khalifa Haftar, who is trying to overthrow al-Sarraj, killed five civilians in a park.

Russia escalates

The Tripoli fighting has been going on since last April, when Haftar launched his campaign to take the capital.

Some 14 Russian warplanes painted in neutral colours, and hundreds of Russian mercenaries have now joined him to help, the Pentagon also said last week.

And Moscow printed €1bn in counterfeit Libyan dinars that it was to ship to Haftar, but which was intercepted in Malta, the US said on Friday.

"This incident once again highlights the need for Russia to cease its malign and destabilising actions in Libya," the US said, amid Russian denials.

Refurbished old jets from former Soviet republics supplied to Haftar by his other allies - such as Egypt or the United Arab Emirates - have long been a feature of the civil war.

But the modern Russian warplanes marked "a substantial further escalation", Sweden's former foreign minister Carl Bildt said.

The Libya war was complicated further when Turkey sent troops and drones to fight on al-Sarraj's side this year.

"We will be there [in Libya] no matter what the outcome. We are decisive on that," Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay said on Friday.

The war is also complicated because, while most EU and Nato states back al-Sarraj, France has given diplomatic and military assistance to Haftar.

The source in the Maltese delegation declined to comment on that.

But the threat to Europe could be higher than that posed by migrant dinghies if things go badly, the US warned in its recent statements.

"If Russia seizes basing on Libya's coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area-denial [A2/AD] capabilities," US general Jeff Harrigian said.

A2AD capabilities refer to Russian anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles that would make the area a no-go zone for Nato.

"If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe's southern flank," Harrigian said.

Le Drian's tears

"The crisis is deepening. We are facing a 'Syrianisation' of Libya," French foreign minister Jean-Yves le Drian also warned last week, referring to the civil war in Syria, where Russia already has an A2AD facility.

Le Drian is said to have been the architect of France's pro-Haftar policy, despite his remarks.

And whatever effect the war will have on Europe, just as in Syria, it is local people who are likely to suffer most, as foreign powers make their moves.

"Conflict and the Covid-19 pandemic present a significant threat to life in Libya. The health and safety of the country's entire population are at risk," the UN said last week.

"Local/community transmission [of coronavirus] is taking place", the UN warned.

"The risk of further escalation of the outbreak is very high," with some military attacks targeting medical facilities and water supplies, it said.

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