A massive shipment of unofficial Libyan currency seized in 2019 will remain “under lock and key” on the island, despite diplomatic pressure to release it, government sources say.

Back in November 2019, Times of Malta had revealed how authorities seized $1.1 billion in a parallel Libyan currency, printed in Russia. It is understood to have been destined for military strongman Khalifa Haftar who is attempting to take the capital Tripoli with his force called Libyan National Army (LNA).

Sources involved in the country’s national security sector confirmed that two 2,000-cubic-foot containers packed full of the internationally unrecognised currency were discovered at Malta Customs at the end of September last year when the shipment stopped.

On Sunday, Malta Today reported that since the seizure, the government has been facing diplomatic pressure from Russia to return the funds. 

Sources told Times of Malta that while this pressure had indeed been exerted, the government had no intention of releasing the money. 

Malta has also decided not to destroy the cash, with one senior official close to Prime Minister Robert Abela saying it would remain held on the island under lock and key. 

At the weekend, the US Department of Justice issued a statement commending Malta’s seizure of the currency.

The cash is thought to have originated from a Russian state-owned mint, Goznak JSC, which has been printing money for the unrecognised Libyan government, based in the eastern city of Bayda.

War-torn Libya has two governments: the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in Tripoli to the west, and the Interim Government, sited in Bayda to the east.

The eastern government is dominated by General Haftar, who launched a bloody offensive on the capital in April 2019.

Most Western nations, including Malta, recognise the GNA in Tripoli, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, who hosted Abela when he visited war-torn Tripoli last week along with Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri and Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo. 

The source said that while the talks focused largely on migration and support for the GNA, the cash seizure was also “briefly” discussed. 

At the time the cash was discovered, a senior source involved in coordinating the seizure, had told Times of Malta the operation was “not about international politics”.

“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,” the source had said.

Others, however, have since pointed out that even if the move might not have been intended to be political, it still had clear political consequences.

“Our relationship with Moscow has been progressively getting worse as we take these positions. It is a balancing act, and one that you can’t always get right, but we don’t want to be seen as too aligned with the United States on these matters,” one Foreign Affairs Ministry source said.

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