Russia has recognised the Libyan rebel council as the sole legitimate authority in a bid to safeguard its vast business interests in the oil-rich North African nation.

In a brief statement issued on Thursday the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow “recognises the Transitional National Council as the ruling authority and takes note of its declared programme of reforms that calls for the drafting of a new Constitution, holding of general elections and formation of the government.”

Russia has therefore upstaged its BRICS partners – Brazil, China, India and South Africa, which are yet to extend recognition to the TNC. Like other BRICS nations (with the exception of South Africa) Russia abstained in the Security Council vote on Resolution 1973, which gave a green light to foreign military intervention in Libya, and criticised the NATO bombing campaign against the Muammar Gaddafi regime.

The Russian move came as a volte face from the Kremlin’s earlier acceptance of TNC as only a party to talks on political settlement in Libya. It was just last week that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow would only recognise the new regime in Libya if it proves it can re-unite the country.

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement made it clear Moscow’s recognition of the Libyan rebels was driven by a desire to protect Russian economic interests in Libya.

“We proceed from the assumption that agreements and other bilateral commitments remain in effect and will be honoured by both sides,” the statement said.

Russian companies could lose more than $10 billion if the current contracts are torn up, according to experts. These include $3.5 billion in oil and gas deals, $4 billion in proposed arms sales and $3.6 billion in railroad building projects.

Mr. Medvedev has sent his special envoy for Africa, Mikhail Margelov, to the Paris conference of “friends of Libya” to defend Russian commercial interests.

“I do not think that the new government in Libya will start re-evaluating Russian contracts from the political, rather than economic criteria,” Mr. Margelov said as he headed to Paris on Thursday.

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