CAIRO (AP) — The U.S. military accused Russia on Friday of supplying more weapons, air defense systems and mercenaries to Libya’s front lines to shape the outcome of the escalating proxy war in the North African country.
The accusation comes as rival Libyan factions — backed by different foreign powers pouring weapons and fighters into the country — prepare to face off over the strategic coastal city of Sirte, which sits next to Libya’s oil-expert terminals and fields.
The U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, said verified photographic evidence reveals Russia’s increased military support to boost commander Khalifa Hifter, based in eastern Libya, against the U.N.-supported government based in the capital, Tripoli, in the west.
“The type and volume of equipment demonstrates an intent toward sustained offensive combat action capabilities, not humanitarian relief, and indicates the Russian Ministry of Defense is supporting these operations,” said U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Bradford Gering, AFRICOM director of operations.
Earlier this week, Russian officials met with their Turkish counterparts in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, where the two emerging power brokers on opposite sides of Libya’s war agreed to push for a cease-fire.
Although it recognizes the U.N.-supported government, the U.S. has mostly disengaged from the Libyan conflict and President Donald Trump once praised Hifter’s counterterrorism efforts. But in recent months, the Pentagon has become increasingly outspoken about its alarm over Moscow’s growing influence in the oil-rich country.
Along with Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France support Hifter’s forces. Egypt’s parliament this week approved a direct troop intervention in Libya if the rival, Turkey-backed forces from Tripoli advance on Sirte. But the U.S. has avoided mention of its allies backing Hifter in violation of the widely flouted U.N. arms embargo.
The statement warned that Russia, in a bid to “establish a long-term presence” on the Mediterranean, was fueling the mayhem in Libya, “increasing the risk for miscalculation leading to continued and needless violence.”
In its latest deployments, Russian military cargo planes landed at al-Khadim airfield to support hundreds of mercenaries supplied by the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked private military company, AFRICOM said. Moscow is also operating air defense equipment “through Wagner Group or their proxies,” and providing mine-resistant armored vehicles, the statement added.
Previously, the U.S. military accused Russia of sending 14 fighter jets to Jufra airbase and claimed Wagner mercenaries planted landmines and improvised explosive devices in Tripoli’s civilian neighborhoods.
Russia has repeatedly denied playing any role in the Libyan war.
On the other side of the conflict, Turkey, a NATO member isolated by rival Mediterranean countries, has ramped up its support for the Tripoli government, drawn by Africa’s largest oil reserves and leverage in decisions about the future of the strategic region.
Turkey’s deployment of military experts, troops, thousands of Syrian mercenaries, and armed drones rescued the Tripoli government from Hifter’s 14-month siege, rolling back his advances with a series of victories earlier this year.
Despite intensive diplomatic efforts to halt the fighting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants Tripoli forces to press into Sirte, the birthplace of longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi, and take the airbase in Jufra.
After Egypt threatened military intervention in Libya, fears have grown of a direct conflict between Turkey on one side, and Egypt and other U.S. allies on the other.