The U.S. African Command accused Moscow of deploying fighter jets to Libya in support of mercenaries backing rebel leader Khalifa Haftar’s forces in a statement released on Tuesday. It added the jets were “repainted to camouflage” their Russian origin.
The allegation came days after Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow backed an immediate ceasefire in war-torn Libya.
“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,” the U.S. military said in its statement on Tuesday. The press release, which included photos of the aircraft, described the planes as “fourth-generation jet fighters” and said they “are likely to provide close air support and offensive fires” for Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).
For more than a year, the LNA and its foreign supporters – including Egypt, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates in addition to Russia – have tried to take Libya’s capital, Tripoli, from the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian militias. On Monday, reports indicated that roughly 1,500 Russian and Syrian mercenaries supporting the LNA had retreated from the capital over the weekend following an aborted assault on Tripoli.
On Wednesday, Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy head of Russia’s International Affairs Committee, denied Russia had sent “military personnel” to Libya.
“Russia has not sent military personnel to Libya and the Russian upper house of parliament has not received a request to approve such a dispatch,” Moscow’s Interfax news agency cited Dzhabarov as saying.
Moscow officially denies military involvement in Libya, but the international press and Western officials have documented the presence of Russian-backed mercenaries in the country, sent to fight with Haftar’s LNA rebel forces. In the summer of 2019, Russia shipped at least 1,400 mercenaries to Libya to support the LNA, according to a Bloomberg report.
The Wagner Company, a private military contractor backed by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, allegedly hired the fighters. The Russian mercenaries evacuated from Tripoli over the weekend were believed to have been contracted by the Wagner Company.
In its statement on Tuesday, the U.S. military warned that Russia’s influence in the Libyan conflict could lead to greater complications.
“If Russia seizes basing on Libya’s coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities. If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank,” U.S. Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian said.