The U.S. military said Russia has deployed fighter aircraft to Libya to support Russian mercenaries backing eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar, a move that threatens to escalate a proxy war with NATO member Turkey and its allies in Tripoli.
“For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict,” U.S. Africa Command Army General Stephen Townsend said in a statement on Tuesday. “Well, there is no denying it now.”
The deployment, first reported by Bloomberg last week, includes at least one MiG 29, according to satellite images released by the U.S. A senior Libyan official had said Haftar received 6 MiG 29s and two Sukhoi SU-24 jets from a Russian-controlled base in Syria, as the commander’s forces warned of an unprecedented aerial campaign against the internationally recognized government in the capital and its Turkish backers.
Haftar, whose self-styled Libyan National Army is also supported by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, launched his offensive to take the capital of the oil-rich North African country in April last year. But the Turkish military intervention has all but foiled the campaign over the past month.
Hundreds of Russian and Syrian mercenaries supporting Haftar have withdrawn from Tripoli’s frontlines in recent days following a series of defeats at the hands of the Government of National Accord. The reason for the redeployment wasn’t immediately clear, and Russia and Turkey have again called for a cease-fire in Libya. But the arrival of the warplanes suggests a possible renewed scramble for weapons ahead of any possible negotiations.
Unlike Turkey’s overt intervention, Russia’s government has repeatedly denied that it’s seeking to tip the scales in favor of Haftar, denying links with mercenaries deployed by the Wagner company, headed by a confidant of Vladimir Putin.
The Russian aircraft “are likely to provide close air support and offensive fires for the Wagner Group PMC that is supporting the Libyan National Army’s fight against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord,” according to the U.S. statement. “The Russian fighter aircraft arrived in Libya, from an airbase in Russia, after transiting Syria where it is assessed they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin.”
Wagner Group was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an influential Moscow operator also known as “Putin’s chef” for his Kremlin catering contracts. Wagner was instrumental in turning the civil war in Syria in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, a Putin ally, although the Russian government has publicly distanced itself from the actions of Prigozhin and his hired soldiers. Prigozhin and one of his companies were also charged in the U.S. with attempting to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
“Given how close Wagner is to the Kremlin, the deployment of these jet fighters -- much like the deployment of mercenaries in September 2019 --- should not be viewed as a mere commercial transaction,” said Emad Badi, a Libya expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “It is meant as a strategic move that would increase Moscow’s political capital in Libya.”
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