The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) has published a series of photographs on Thursday showing "the presence of Russian aircraft in Libyan airspace", one of them taking off from the Jufra airbase and another of a MiG-29 aircraft operating in the surroundings of the strategic city of Sirte.
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar reinforced his air power at the end of May with the arrival of at least 14 Russian-made MiG-19 and Su-24 fighter planes. "Russia's involvement in Libya increases violence and delays a political solution," said U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General Bradford Gering and director of operations for USAFRICOM. "Russia continues to press for a strategic foothold on NATO's southern flank and is doing so at the expense of innocent civilian lives in Libya," he added.
AFRICOM reported in May that at least 14 MiG-29s and several Su-24s were flown from Russia to Syria, where attempts were made to camouflage the origin of these aircraft, before flying to the North African nation. "Russia's introduction of armed and manned attack aircraft into Libya changes the nature of the current conflict and intensifies the risk potential for all Libyans, especially innocent civilians," the US Africa Command warned in an official statement.
"There is concern that these Russian planes are being piloted by inexperienced non-state mercenaries who do not adhere to international law; that is, they are not bound by the traditional laws of armed conflict," the AFRICOM director of operations said. The US Army has warned this Thursday about the active presence of Russian aircraft in the African country with the aim of "supporting private military companies backed by the Russian Government". "We know that these fighter planes were not in Libya. They clearly came from Russia. They did not come from another country," said Africom spokesman Chris Karns.
The United States has criticised Russia for being "the largest arms exporter in Africa" in order to "profit from violence and instability across the continent". They have also noted that the Wagner Group, a private military company that U.S. officials have warned has links to the Kremlin and is headed by a former Russian intelligence officer, is active in at least 16 countries on the African continent. "It is estimated that there are about 2,000 Wagner Group people in Libya," they said.
"Russia has relentlessly pursued a narrative of implausible denials in the media. It is difficult to deny the facts. The Russian interference and masking of the activity in Libya is visible and slows down the progress that the people of Libya deserve," concluded the spokesman.
A stronger Russian presence in Libya could completely change the game scenario and have direct consequences on the decisions of Europe and NATO, among others. Haftar is supported by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Russia and France; while the Tripoli government, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and internationally recognized by the United Nations or Italy, receives military aid from Turkey and Qatar. Since 2015, Russia has provided military, diplomatic and financial support to the Libyan National Army (LNA) in its war against the UN-backed Tripoli-based National Accord Government (GNA). Since 2017, Russian support has focused on training, equipping and advising the LNA.
Marshal Khalifa Haftar's ambitions to take Tripoli and take control of Libya have begun to crumble, especially after the GNA has begun to gain strength in the west of the country. The LNA has withdrawn to the east in recent weeks, although it maintains the line around Sirte and still controls the Jufra airbase. This base has become increasingly important, mainly after the GNA defeated Haftar militias around Tripoli and Moscow intensified its presence in the region with the dispatch of at least 14 MiG-29 fighters and Su-24 attack aircraft. Strategically located, Kufra airbase has served as the main air and logistical hub for the LNA's advances in the west of the country. Several Russian aircraft and Wagner mercenaries began operating at Al Jufra in 2019, and that presence was expanded in 2020, according to research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The United States has denounced the Russian presence in Libya one day after a UN committee of experts issued an official statement saying that "dependence on foreign actors has contributed to the escalation of the conflict in Libya and has undermined the prospects for a peaceful solution, all at a very tragic cost to the local population" and at the same time that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced his interest in having a stronger US involvement in Libya to promote a peace process to end the conflict.
The United Nations Working Group analysing the presence of foreign combatants in the conflict ravaging the North African nation has expressed concern "at the widespread reports of the use of mercenaries". "This is a violation of the current arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council, which includes a ban on providing armed mercenary personnel, as well as a violation of the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries to which Libya is a party," said Chris Kwaja, who chairs the working group.
The UN has called on the parties involved in the conflict in Libya and the states that support them to immediately stop "recruiting, financing and deploying mercenaries" to maintain hostilities. "The deployment of mercenaries in Libya only increases the numbers and opacity of armed groups and other actors operating in a context of impunity," they said.
"We urge the Governments concerned to investigate all allegations of human rights violations and abuses committed or facilitated by these actors, to hold the perpetrators accountable and to provide the victims with access to effective remedies. The use of these combatants is even more worrying in times of COVID-19. Sending them into a conflict zone shows a total disregard for the health and safety of Libyan civilians," they lamented. The United Nations has repeatedly denounced the interference of foreign actors in this conflict and has called for a process of intra-Libyan talks to bring peace to a country devastated by the war since 2011.