WASHINGTON – More than a dozen attack jets that Russia sent to Libya this year are conducting ground strikes and other combat missions in support of Russian mercenaries fighting alongside a besieged commander in his campaign to oust the government from Tripoli, the capital, a major US military the official said Friday.
The Pentagon’s Africa Command revealed in May the deployment of at least 14 MiG-29 and Su-24 jets in Libya, highlighting Moscow’s growing role in a sprawling proxy war, where its Libyan ally, Commander Khalifa Hifter, had suffered a series of setbacks that dealt a severe blow to his campaign.
Admiral Heidi Berg, Africa Command intelligence director, said on Friday that the Russian planes, piloted by crews from the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-backed private military company whose mercenaries provided a strong boost to Mr. Hifter in Tripoli last fall, had carried out several ground attacks and other missions.
“These fighters are engaged in combat activities,” Admiral Berg said in a telephone interview with reporters. “I’m not there for training.”
But the operations came at a high price, Admiral Berg said. Two of the MiG-29s crashed, one in June and another last week. The cause of the crashes – whether mechanical accident, driver error or something else – was unknown, he said, but likely indicated a lack of technical skill and competence.
Russian military cargo planes, including IL-76s, continue to provide Wagner Group forces operating in Libya with military armored vehicles, SA-22 air defense systems, fuel, ammunition and other supplies, further increasing the risk of misdirection errors. calculation and continued violence in Libya, she said. While Moscow would like to install sophisticated S-300 or S-400 air defenses in Libya, Admiral Berg said it hadn’t happened yet.
The far-reaching scope of secret and embargo-violating arms flights by Russia and the UAE to support Mr. Hifter was revealed in a confidential report submitted to a UN Security Council group this month, and seen by the New York Times.
Libya plunged into chaos in 2011 after the ousting and killing of longtime ruler Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi. It has since been split between two administrations, east and west of the country, supported by rival foreign powers.
A 14-month campaign by Mr. Hifter to capture Tripoli it ended in failure in June, but dragged Russia and Turkey deeper into the war.
The Russian Wagner group now has 3,000 Syrian men and 2,000 Syrian mercenaries on the ground in Libya, Admiral Berg said, while Turkey has 5,000 Syrian mercenaries and several hundred Turkish soldiers in the country. Russia has repeatedly denied any intervention in Libya.
So far there is no evidence that the Islamic State has sown large numbers of agents in the mercenary ranks, Admiral Berg said.
Africa Command has in recent months issued a series of press releases condemning Russia’s involvement in Libya, often including satellite images of Russian aircraft, as well as Wagner forces and equipment at the forefront of the Libyan conflict in Surt.
US military officials say the Wagner Group has installed land mines and improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, in civilian areas in and around Tripoli, jeopardizing the safety of civilians. Africa Command says satellite images also show that Wagner Group transport trucks and Russian mine-resistant armored vehicles are also present in Libya.
Russia is constantly expanding its military influence across Africa by increasing arms sales, security deals, and training programs for unstable countries or autocratic leaders. Other recent Moscow actions include the silent deployment of mercenaries and political advisers to several countries, including Mozambique and the Central African Republic.
American officials, analyzing what they call great competition for power, say they are alarmed by the growing influence of Russia, as well as China, as Washington struggles to exercise its economic and security goals on the continent.