Washington says it has photographic proof showing that Moscow sent fighter jets to Libya to bolster warlord Haftar's ranks.
For the second time in the last few weeks, the US accused Russia for deploying fighter jets in Libya to support warlord Khalifa Haftar.
Russia was quick to deny the story, saying that the disguised Russian planes that consisted of MiG-29s were not there, and the release of images of the planes at al-Jufra airbase located in the south of Sirte were not enough in the eyes of Russians. According to the US sources, there were as many as eight jets.
The US has previously made a similar accusation, but on that occasion, Russia rebuffed it by saying that it had not sent any jets to Libya. This time, the US Africa Command (Africom) announced that it has photographic evidence of a Russian aircraft taking off from Jufra in central Libya, and that a MiG-29 was also photographed operating in the vicinity of the coastal city of Sirte.
"There is concern these Russian aircraft are being flown by inexperienced, non-state PMC [private military companies] mercenaries who will not adhere to international law; namely, they are not bound by the traditional laws of armed conflict," said Bradford Gering, AFRICOM's director of operations.
He added, "Russia continues to push for a strategic foothold on NATO's southern flank and this is at the expense of innocent Libyan lives."
The incident took place weeks after Africom claimed that Russia had flown at least 14 MiG-29s and several Su-24s to Libya via Syria last May, where its forces support Syrian Regime leader Bashar al-Assad. Last month, the allegations were dismissed by Russia’s lower house of parliament, and a member of its defence committee discarded them as ‘fake’ news.
Russia has denied several reports of it sending heavy-duty weaponry, including fighter jets, to bolster Haftar's presence in Libya.
The same scenario: Support to warlord Haftar and use of Wagner
When the reports of Russian involvement in Libya were intermittent, the Kremlin started using private military proxies in the conflict. Its ambassador denied that Russia had any intent to establish a base or deploy its Aerospace Forces on anti-terrorism missions in Libya. But in late 2018, suspicions were raised that Russia was sending troops to the war-torn country.
The role of the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary organisation in Libya, has attracted the most international scrutiny. A video has surfaced showing Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner mercenary organization, attending negotiations between Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, and warlord Haftar.
According to several reports, the Wagner Group is linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The group's presence was first reported in eastern Ukraine, where its mercenaries fought alongside pro-Russian forces. They had revolted against the Eurocentric government of the Ukraine.
Headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is also known as former ‘Hotdog Seller’ and ‘Putin’s Chef’ for having catering contracts with Kremlin, the Wagner Group has earned notoriety for being a proxy front for Putin's wars in the Middle East and Europe.
The Wagner Group has started deploying mercenaries to the front lines of the Libyan war following Russia’s decisive military intervention in Syria where hundreds of Wagner’s mercenaries were reportedly killed during clashes with the US forces as they attempted to seize an oil refinery in Syria in 2018.
Despite Russia repeatedly saying that it did not help warlord Haftar in 2019, just a day later, on 7 April, Russia blocked a UN Security Council statement that urged Haftar's forces to halt their advance on Tripoli, insisting that the statement should urge all forces in the country to stop fighting. Felgenhauer sees the move as a clear sign of Russia's tacit support for Haftar.
Russia first rose to prominence in Libya in September 2019 after it deployed mercenaries to the front lines of Tripoli to back Haftar. It sparked concern in the United States and Europe who feared that the Kremlin had finally thrown its hat into Libya’s civil war.