The US military has accused Russia of deploying fighter jets to Libya to support renegade general Khalifa Haftar in a sign of Washington’s mounting concerns about Moscow’s role in the conflict in the north African state.
The US Africa Command said the war planes were expected to provide “close air support and offensive fire” for Russian mercenaries fighting alongside forces loyal to Gen Haftar, the Libyan strongman who has led a year-long offensive against the country’s UN-backed government in Tripoli.
In the most robust US statement yet about Moscow’s involvement in the Libyan conflict, the US military said it had tracked the fourth-generation fighter jets as they flew from a Russian airbase to Libya, via Syria, where it believed the aircraft were repainted to camouflage their origin.
“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favour in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner [a Russian private security company],” said General Stephen Townsend, commander of US Africa Command. “For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now.”
The Financial Times reported last week that UN experts were investigating the suspected deployment of at least eight Russian-made fighter jets to eastern Libya, which is controlled by Gen Haftar’s forces.
Libya’s interior ministry has said the aircraft included at least six MiG-29s and two Sukhoi 24s, and had flown to Libya from Hmeimim air base in Syria. Russia and the Wagner group have deployed forces in Syria to back president Bashar al-Assad in the country’s nine-year civil war.
Diplomats fear rival foreign powers involved in the Syrian conflict are now escalating their proxy war on Libya’s front lines. Turkey — which backs Syrian rebels fighting Mr Assad — has stepped up its support for Libya’s UN-backed government this year. Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt back Gen Haftar.
The US position on the Libyan conflict has often been described as ambiguous. Days after Gen Haftar launched his offensive in April last year, President Donald Trump praised the Libyan strongman’s “role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”.
Washington has since criticised the role of Turkey and Russia, while being conspicuously quiet about repeated arms embargo violations by its Arab allies, the UAE and Egypt. But in recent days the Trump administration has expressed support for the UN-backed government while highlighting its concern about the escalating conflict.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, spoke with Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the Tripoli-based administration, last week and reiterated “US opposition to the continued level of weapons and munitions being brought into the country,” the state department said. This week, the US ambassador to Libya said Washington was “proud to partner with the legitimate, UN-recognised government of Libya”.
Western diplomats view Russia’s role in Libya as opportunistic — a chance for Moscow to assert its influence in the region and expand its foothold in the east Mediterranean.
General Jeff Harrigian, commander of US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, alluded to Washington’s concerns, saying that if Russia seized bases on Libya’s coast “the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial capabilities”.
“If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank,” Gen Harrigian said in the statement on Tuesday.
Diplomats say hundreds of Wagner fighters have been deployed to support Gen Haftar in Libya for some time. But more recently, an estimated 2,000 Syrian fighters have been dispatched to bolster Gen Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army.
Meanwhile, Turkey has increased its support for the government in Tripoli by dispatching several thousand Syrian militias and equipment, including Hawk air defence systems, that have negated Gen Haftar’s air superiority.
Fighters loyal to the UN-backed government took control of al-Watiya air base this month after a battle in which Turkish drones destroyed Russian-made Pantsir air-defence systems.
After the LNA’s loss — General Haftar’s biggest setback since he launched his offensive on Tripoli — it said it would launch a new air campaign.
Gen Townsend said: “That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans.”
Andrei Krasov, deputy chairman of the defence committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, said the allegation was “another American horror story . . . fake and misinformation”.
“The American side is once again trying to play the Russian card,” Mr Krasov told local news agency Interfax. “Russia’s position is well known: We are in favour of ending the bloodshed in Libya.”
Frederic Wehrey, Libya specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, described the Africom statement “as a major bold move against Russia” but expressed doubt on whether it would “translate into a more muscular US policy on Libya”.
“The big unknown is the White House . . . because there are other allies that still have a hand in the fight like France and the Emirates, so will the US want to expend the political capital [by opposing those countries too].”
Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo