Libya’s strongest warlord has issued a warning to Italian ships being deployed to help turn back migrant boats inside the country’s territorial waters.
Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which controls much of eastern Libya, is backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and appears to enjoy a degree of support from the Russian Federation as well.
“Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, issues orders to the Libyan naval bases in Tobruk, Benghazi, Ras Lanuf and Tripoli to confront any marine unit that enters the Libyan waters without the permission of the army,” announced a Libyan National Army statement disseminated via Facebook.
Roberta Pinotti, the Italian defence minister, has insisted that “There will be no harm done or slight given to Libyan sovereignty, because, if anything, our aim is to strengthen Libyan sovereignty.”
The Mediterranean country is sending the two warships to assist the Libyan coast guard with the blessing of the so-called Government of National Accord, which is backed by the United Nations.
However, the country is still in a state of widespread disorder and — in places — low-level civil war, and Haftar is something of an unknown quantity within the official power structure.
Whilst it seems unlikely that any faction within Libya would risk open confrontation with the Italians, The Telegraph claims opposition to their presence has been “widespread” on social media, with many sharing pictures of Omar al-Mukhtar, who fought them in the early 1900s.
The migrant crisis has proved extremely lucrative for many Libyans — who make up an extremely small proportion of the influx to Europe themselves, despite their country’s parlous state — with migrants, people-smugglers, and the activity around them providing many locals with a source of revenue.
Some migrants are even being sold in open-air slave markets, in an astonishing latter-day revival of the North African slave trade which was largely stamped out by the intervention of British and European expeditionary forces, such as the one commanded by Lord Exmouth in 1816.