Libyan and US officials say hundreds of Russian mercenaries are backing commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have been trying for months to capture the capital Tripoli.

FILE PHOTO: Libyan militia commander General Khalifa Haftar (top centre) listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (bottom centre), during their meeting in Moscow, Russia.
FILE PHOTO: Libyan militia commander General Khalifa Haftar (top centre) listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (bottom centre), during their meeting in Moscow, Russia. (Ivan Sekretarev / AP)

Officials in Libya’s UN-supported government say they plan to confront Moscow over the alleged deployment of Russian mercenaries fighting alongside their opponents in the country’s civil war.

Libyan and US officials accuse Russia of deploying fighters through a private security contractor, the Wagner Group, to key battleground areas in Libya in the past months.

They say the Russian fighters are backing commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have been trying for months to capture the capital Tripoli. 

The UN-supported Government of National Accord is based in Tripoli.

The GNA has documented between 600 to 800 Russian fighters in Libya and is collecting their names in a list to present to the Russian government, according to Khaled al Meshri, the head of the Tripoli-based government’s Supreme Council of State.

“We are going to visit Russia after we collect all evidence and present to the authorities and see what they say,” al Meshri told The Associated Press last week. He did not say when that visit would take place.

Moscow denies role

Moscow has repeatedly denied playing any role in Libya’s fighting.

Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army — made up of army units, ultraconservative Salafists, and tribesmen — launched its offensive on Tripoli in April after seizing much of eastern Libya from militants and other rivals in recent years. 

Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia, while the Tripoli-based government receives aid from Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. 

The country is now split between a government in the east, allied with Haftar, and the GNA in Tripoli in the west. Both sides are bolstered by militias. 

Let up in fighting

Fighting has stalled in recent weeks, with both sides dug in and shelling one another along Tripoli’s southern reaches.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker told reporters last week that the State Department is working with European partners to impose sanctions on the Russian military contractor responsible for sending fighters to Tripoli.

“The way that this organisation of Russians, in particular, has operated before raises the spectre of large-scale casualties in civilian populations,” he said.

Schenker’s comments came shortly after US officials met with Haftar to press for a ceasefire and “expressed serious concern” over Russia’s intervention in the conflict.

But President Donald Trump has sent decidedly mixed messages to Haftar.

Trump voiced support of Haftar when he launched his attempt to take over Tripoli, praising the commanders “anti-terrorism” efforts in a phone conversation. The call was a sharp break with the US policy of supporting Libya’s Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj.

Haftar’s offensive dealt a blow to UN efforts to bring warring parties together. Al Meshri called for confidence-building measures and a push toward presidential and parliamentary elections.

“Since Gaddafi’s ouster, there have been no presidential elections. People are fed up,” he said.

Strong evidence

The Russians’ presence has further mired an already complex conflict.

Al Meshri maintains his administration has strong evidence that there are Russians fighters on the ground.

He says that government forces have found cell phones, intercepted communications and seized personal belongings left behind in the chaos of battle. 

He said flight data show dates and names of Russians moving from Syria to Egypt and then the Jordanian capital of Amman before flying to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, Haftar’s seat of power. He didn’t elaborate or present any of these documents or items to the AP.

Officially, Russia continues to maintain a dialogue with both sides. Haftar has visited Moscow several times the past years, and al Meshri was part of a GNA delegation that met with Putin during a Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in March.

The allegations of Russian interference come amid a renewed push for international players to reach a consensus on Libya.

Germany is working with the United Nations to host a conference on Libya by early 2020. Observers hope that international players could exert enough pressure to stop the fighting.

But others worry that Haftar’s appetite for territory and power might prove too large. Former GNA defence minister Mahdi al Barghathi, who left in the government in July, says the only way toward peace is for Haftar to be left with no powerful friends and no other options. Otherwise, al Barghathi said Haftar will be set to become another Gadhafi.

As long as international powers remain divided, Libya’s conflict risks continuing to play out as the world’s latest proxy war, some observers warn.

Source: AP