US says Russia sent jets to Libya ‘mercenaries’

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On 20 May Government of National Accord (GNA) troops in Tripoli paraded a captured Russian Pantsir air defence system

The US military has accused Russia of sending fighter jets to Libya to support Russian mercenaries there.

There was no immediate response from the Russian Defence Ministry to the US Africa command (Africom) allegation.

Earlier this month a leaked UN report spoke of hundreds of mercenaries from the shadowy Wagner Group operating in Libya. Russia backs renegade Gen Khalifa Haftar’s army.

The country has issued a new call for a Libya ceasefire and political talks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the conflict with an ally of Gen Haftar by phone on Tuesday, the foreign ministry said.

He told Aguila Saleh Issa, a parliament speaker, that “there needs to be a constructive dialogue involving all the Libyan political forces” and “an immediate ceasefire”.

Russia has not confirmed the presence of Wagner mercenaries in Libya. There have been many reports – though not from Russian officials – about Wagner deployments in Syria, eastern Ukraine and other hotspots, including the Central African Republic.

The Russian government denies any state involvement in the militant group.

On 18 May forces of the UN-recognised Tripoli government, fighting Gen Haftar’s army, were photographed at a captured airbase, al-Watiya, just south of the Libyan capital.

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GNA officer Capt Qanunu posed next to a MiG-23 at the captured al-Watiya airbase

According to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), more than 1,000 Wagner fighters fled an area south of Tripoli aboard Russian transport planes, having been pushed back by GNA troops.

That evacuation was not confirmed by Gen Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), nor by Russia.

The US Africom statement on Tuesday said: “Moscow recently deployed military fighter aircraft to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors (PMCs) operating on the ground there.”

“Russian military 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,” it said.

“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.”

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Media captionWhat’s behind the fight for Libya?

Turkey is supporting the GNA in Tripoli, and Turkey’s Sabah newspaper earlier reported that eight Russian MiG-29 and Su-24 warplanes had flown from Syria to Libya to help the LNA. That report quoted GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.

US Army Gen Stephen Townsend, commanding Africom, said: “Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favour in Libya… using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner”.

“We watched as Russia flew fourth generation jet fighters to Libya – every step of the way. Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support – support they are getting from Russia.”

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