The Maltese government has seized a massive shipment of unofficial Libyan banknotes believed to have been destined for Khalifa Haftar, the military commander leading an offensive to dislodge the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Security services in Malta confirmed two 2,000-cubic-foot (56-cubic-metre) containers packed full of the recently introduced currency were discovered at the end of September when the shipment stopped in Malta.
The cash is thought to have originated from a Russian-owned mint, which has been printing money for the unrecognised Libyan government, based in the eastern city of Bayda. It is claimed the money has been used to fuel the war on Tripoli.
Libya has been gripped by a civil war broadly between the east and west of the country leading to rival institutions, including governments, central banks and military forces.
Haftar has been bombing the Libyan capital, Tripoli, since April in an attempt to dislodge the government of national accord.
Malta recognises the government in Tripoli, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, who visited the island in May to rally support weeks after the Libyan National Army launched the attack on Tripoli.
Although Russia claims to be neutral in Libya, Moscow has allowed the eastern government to print billions of Libyan dinars in Russia, some of which has been used to bankroll the LNA and its war efforts. Haftar has also visited Moscow and been provided with firearms.
A source from Malta’s security services told the Times of Malta: “I would not interpret this as anti-Russia but as pro-legality. This was about Malta enforcing UN resolutions on Libya, which we have signed up to and backed all along.”
Nonetheless, the recognised central bank in Tripoli has so far failed to declare the Russian printed notes as illegal, so it is unclear under which sanctions framework the seizure was made.
In April, the island turned down two requests by the Russian government to be granted permission for military aircraft traveling from Syria to Venezuela to fly over Maltese airspace. Shortly after, Malta reportedly also refused to allow a Russian warship to stop over.
The Russian government described these developments as “not friendly”, saying it would take this into account when dealing with the country in future.
The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, has been in Libya and the region in the past week attempting to garner support for a peace conference in Berlin later this month aimed at reducing interference by outside powers, including Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar.
The UN special envoy Ghassan Salamé has admitted the security council is split, with some countries backing Sarraj and others Haftar. A UN call urging Haftar to end his assault on Tripoli has been blocked, leaving the international community to call for a general ceasefire. The fighting has led to 1,000 deaths and in a sign of the impact of Haftar’s assault, 600 detainees have been released from Abu Salim detention centre on to the streets.
UN agencies have warned the release of the detainees at a time of fighting in Tripoli is dangerous, adding the “release of migrants should be conducted in an orderly manner and their protection must be guaranteed”.