Officials in Libya’s UN-supported government say that they plan to confront Moscow over the alleged deployment of Russian mercenaries fighting alongside their opponents in the nation’s civil war.
Libyan and US officials accuse Russia of deploying fighters through a private security contractor, 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 UN-supported government of national accord is based in Tripoli.
The government has documented between 600 to 800 Russian fighters in Libya, and is collecting their names in a list to present to the Russian government, said Khaled al-Meshri, 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 said last week.
He did not say when that visit would take place.
Moscow has repeatedly denied playing any role in the fighting in Libya.
Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army — made up of army units, ultraconservative Salafists, and tribespeople — launched its offensive on Tripoli in April, after seizing much of eastern Libya from Islamic militants and other rivals.
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 dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The country is now split between a government in the east, allied with Hifter, and the UN-backed government in Tripoli in the west.
Both sides are bolstered by militias, but fighting has stalled, 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 last week told reporters that the US Department of State is working with European partners to impose sanctions on the Russian military contractor responsible for sending fighters to Libya.
“The way that this organization of Russians in particular has operated before raises the specter of large-scale casualties in civilian populations,” he said.
Schenker’s comments came shortly after US officials met with Hifter to press for a ceasefire and “expressed serious concern” over Russia’s intervention in the conflict.
By deploying fighters in Libya, Russia is embroiling itself in another conflict in the Middle East.
The Russian military is involved in the Syrian civil war, conducting airstrikes, and deploying troops and military police. That operation shored up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and helped Moscow expand its clout in the region.
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 nation is a gateway for many migrants trying to reach Europe.
“Most of this is smoke and mirrors designed to induce fear,” Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute founder Anas Gamati said. “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.
The allegations of Russian interference come amid a renewed push for international players to reach a consensus on Libya.
Germany is working with the UN on hosting a conference on Libya next year. Observers hope that international players could exert enough pressure to stop the fighting.
As long as international powers remain divided, Libya’s conflict risks continuing to play out as the world’s latest proxy war.
“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. “All of this is music to Putin’s ears.”
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