Defence Secretary warns Russia is interfering in Libya to test Nato alliance

Defence secretary Michael Fallon meets soldiers
Defence secretary Michael Fallon meets soldiers Credit:  David Rose

The Defence Secretary has warned Russia against interfering in Libya, as Britain and its Nato allies consider sending more aid to help the fragmented country rebuild its armed forces.

Sir Michael Fallon said Russia was “testing” the military alliance with overtures to a Libyan strongman in competition with the UN-backed Tripoli government.

“We don’t need the bear sticking his paws in,” he said as defence and foreign ministers gathered at the Munich Security Conference.

Putin is testing the West, he’s testing the alliance. At any point where he sees weakness, he pushes homeMichael Fallon

The Tripoli government led by Fayez Seraj this week called on the military alliance for help to rebuild its forces, which were shattered by the Western campaign to oust Col Muammar Gaddafi followed by six years of instability.

But the country remains split between rival militia, with Khalifa Haftar overseeing an alliance of armed groups around the eastern port of Benghazi and shunning the government in the capital.

Last month Haftar visited the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov as it finished its tour of the Mediterranean. Onboard he held a video-conference call with Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, where the pair discussed the fight against "terrorist groups".

Sir Michael claimed the conference call had been largely symbolic but added: “Putin is testing the West, he’s testing the alliance. At any point where he sees weakness, he pushes home.”

He said: “We continue to urge the Seraj government to reach out to the east. It’s important that that government does reflect the strengths of the east and equally Field Marshall Hafter needs to reflect the interests of Misrata and Tripoli over in the west.”

Nato has offered support to the Tripoli-based government, but a prior request for help last May was seen as too broad.

Stabilising the country is seen as critical to stemming the tide of migrants and refugees using the country as a departure point for sailing to Europe.

A small force of Royal Marines are already training the Libyan coast guard.

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