In a development providing insight into the financial dimension of the Libyan civil war, Malta has seized the equivalent of $1.1 billion in counterfeit Libyan currency, apparently in line with efforts to deter illicit activities that undermine the stability of the North African country.
The fake banknotes were said to be intended to bankroll the forces of Khalifa Haftar, which are fighting the UN-recognized government. The shipment was found in shipping containers by Maltese customs officials in November 2019, although news of the seizure was only reported last week. News reports in Malta said Russia is seeking the return of the shipment.
In a statement on May 29, the US State Department praised the seizure, saying the counterfeit currency was printed by Russian state-owned company Goznak. It said the funds were not ordered by the Central Bank of Libya, located in the capital Tripoli, but rather by an "illegitimate parallel entity."
"The influx of counterfeit, Russian-printed Libyan currency in recent years has exacerbated Libya’s economic challenges," the statement said. "This incident once again highlights the need for Russia to cease its malign and destabilizing actions in Libya."
However, Russia's Foreign Ministry claimed on May 30 that the money is not fake, saying Libya has another central bank in the city of Benghazi, which is Haftar's stronghold.
UN experts reported to the Security Council in December 2019 that Goznak delivered to the parallel central bank the equivalent of over $7 billion between 2016 and 2018.
Russia is said to have recently increased its support of Haftar by secretly deploying fighter jets to the military leader's stronghold. There are reportedly as many as 1,200 mercenaries from a Russian military contractor fighting alongside Haftar's forces.