US military command for Africa releases pictures of the "fourth generation jet fighters", saying the jets to support Russian Wagner group arrived recently but did not specify when exactly.
Russia recently sent fighter jets to Libya to support Russian mercenaries fighting for warlord Khalifa Haftar, the US military command for Africa (or Africom) said on Tuesday, in a major escalation in the long-running conflict.
"For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now," said US Army General Stephen Townsend in the Africom statement.
"Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favour in Libya," he added.
"Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner."
The military fighter aircraft left Russia and first stopped in Syria where they "were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin" before arriving in Libya, said Stuttgart-based Africom.
The US military did not specify when exactly the jets arrived, only saying that it was "recently".
Townsend described the Russian warplanes deployed to Libya as "fourth generation jet fighters".
NEWS: Russia deploys military fighter aircraft to Libya— US AFRICOM (@USAfricaCommand) May 26, 2020
"For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now." - Gen. Townsend
Photos: https://t.co/raTal1LKPa pic.twitter.com/dVtsWKPYZ5
Setbacks for illegal militia
The announcement comes a day after Libya's UN-recognised government said hundreds of Russian mercenaries backing rival Haftar had been evacuated from combat zones south of the capital Tripoli.
It also comes after a confidential UN report exposed a western private army mission that sought to block Turkish shipments to Tripoli-based UN-backed government.
The retreat follows a series of setbacks for Haftar's years-long offensive to seize the capital from the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).
The Kremlin has always denied involvement in the conflict.
But United Nations experts said in a report last month that the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian paramilitary organisation seen as close to President Vladimir Putin, had sent fighters to back Haftar.
Abuse of arms embargo
Oil-rich Libya plunged into conflict after the ouster and killing of former ruler Muammar Gaddafi in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising, with rival administrations and militias vying for power.
The conflict worsened when Haftar – who is also backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – launched an offensive on Tripoli in April 2019.
Africom said Russia's actions risked prolonging the conflict and exacerbating "casualties and human suffering on both sides".
If confirmed, Russia's fighter jet deployment would constitute another violation of a much-abused 2011 UN arms embargo.
World leaders agreed in January to uphold the embargo and stop meddling in the conflict that has dragged in major regional rivals.
But the UN has repeatedly warned that both sides have continued to receive arms and fighters.