Libya and Iran top agenda in Merkel-Putin meeting

MOSCOW (AFP) – Confrontation between Washington and Tehran over the US killing of a top general and turmoil in Libya are set to dominate talks in Moscow on Saturday between the leaders of Russia and Germany.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin will hold talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow on Saturday afternoon — her first visit since May 2018 when the two leaders met at Sochi on the Black Sea.

Putin visited Syria and Turkey this week and is keen to stress his role as a regional powerbroker.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who will attend the talks, said a “key reason” for the meeting was the escalating crisis in Libya, where Germany is acting as a mediator in a conflict he has warned could become a “second Syria”.

“We are involving Europe and those players who are influential there, for that we need Russia,” Maas told Germany’s NTV television. “For us, it’s not too far to fly to Moscow to discuss that with Putin.”

Merkel is to invite Putin to a Berlin conference on Libya later this month, diplomatic sources told AFP.

Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a ceasefire in Libya on Wednesday, although they are seen as supporting opposing sides in the conflict.

While Turkey has sent troops to support the UN-backed Tripoli government, Moscow is accused of backing mercenaries supporting strongman Khalifa Haftar in his fight against the government.

Haftar said he would fight on despite the call for a ceasefire.

Iran tensions

The Kremlin said last week that Saturday’s talks would cover the “escalation of tensions” in the Middle East after the US killed top Iranian commander General Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike close to Baghdad.

Putin warned the killing could “seriously aggravate the situation in the region”.

Iran, an ally of Moscow, responded with missile attacks on Iraq bases housing American troops.

While Germany condemned the tit-for-tat violence and urged Tehran to end a “spiral” of conflict, Putin said using force would “not contribute to finding solutions to the complex problems in the Middle East”.

Tehran has announced a further rollback on its commitment to a 2015 nuclear accord following the United States’ unilateral withdrawal in 2018. Russia and Germany are among world powers still backing the deal.

The talks also come after a Ukrainian airliner crashed in Iran on Wednesday killing all 176 on board. Canada and the US have suggested Iran downed it with a missile, which Tehran denies.

The Kremlin said the talks would also cover the conflict in Ukraine.

The war with Moscow-backed separatists broke out after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and has killed more than 13,000 people.

Putin in December held talks with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky in Paris in the “Normandy format” hosted by German and French leaders.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko tweeted on Friday that he had spoken to Maas about the Ukraine conflict and was “waiting for news” to emerge from the talks.

Political analysts in Kiev said they expected the topic to be overshadowed by Iran tensions, while Merkel could ask Putin to push Tehran for a transparent investigation of the plane crash.

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