Libya Gets Evidence of Russian Fighters12/05 06:19
TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) -- Officials in Libya's U.N.-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 U.S. 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 Hifter, whose
forces have been trying for months to capture the capital Tripoli. The
U.N.-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 has repeatedly denied playing any role in Libya's fighting.
Hifter'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 Islamic militants and
other rivals in recent years. Hifter 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 Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The country is now split between a government
in the east, allied with Hifter, and the GNA in Tripoli in the west. Both sides
are bolstered by militias. Fighting has stalled in recent weeks, with both
sides dug in and shelling one another along Tripoli's southern reaches.
U.S. 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 organization of Russians in particular has operated
before raises the specter of large-scale casualties in civilian populations,"
Schenker's comments came shortly after U.S. officials met with Hifter to
press for a cease-fire and "expressed serious concern" over Russia's
intervention in the conflict.
But President Donald Trump has sent decidedly mixed messages to Hifter.
Trump voiced support of Hifter 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 U.S. policy of supporting
Libya's Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj.
Hifter's offensive dealt a blow to U.N. efforts to bring warring parties
together. Al-Meshri called for confidence-building measures and a push toward
presidential and parliamentary elections.
"Since Gadhafi's ouster, there have been no presidential elections. People
are fed up," he said.
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, Hifter's seat of power. He didn't elaborate or present
any of these documents or items to the AP.
Wagner Group is believed to have sent mercenaries to multiple conflicts,
including Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, raising accusations that Moscow is
using it to spread its influence. The firm is a military contractor run by
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin. Russian
officials have refused in the past to comment on the firm's activities.
By deploying fighters into Libya, Russia is embroiling itself in another
conflict in the Middle East. Russia's military is involved in Syria's civil
war, conducting airstrikes and deploying troops and military police. That
operation successfully shored up Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and
--- at a relatively modest cost --- helped Moscow expand its clout in the
Analysts believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to find
leverage with Western powers in oil-rich Libya. They say he also recognizes
that the country is a gateway for many migrants trying to reach European shores.
"Most of this is smoke and mirrors designed to induce fear," said Anas
Gamati, founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute. "Russian influence has
done only two things: inflate their size and specter of their power in Libya.
They're not positively engaged or trying to play a constructive role with
diplomatic or political value."
Officially, Russia continues to maintain a dialogue with both sides. Hifter
has visited Moscow several times the past years, and a delegation of the
Tripoli-based government met with Putin during a Russia-Africa Economic Forum
summit in Sochi in October.
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 Hifter's appetite for territory and power might prove
too large. Former GNA defense minister Mahdi al-Barghathi, who left in the
government in July, says the only way toward peace is for Hifter to be left
with no powerful friends, and no other options. Otherwise, al-Barghathi said
Hifter will be set to become another Gadhafi.
"We don't want to go back to square one," he said.
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.
"Putin would like nothing more than to keep Europe busy and divided over
Libya, scared of illegal immigration, paralyzed by right-wing populism that
threatens the very idea of the EU," said Mohammed Eljareh, an analyst who runs
Libya Outlook, a consulting company on Libyan affairs.
"All of this is music to Putin's ears," he said.