The US Africa Command flatly rejected Russian claims that Moscow did not deploy fighter jets to Libya, saying on Friday that the 14 aircraft flown in reflect Russia’s long-term goal to establish a foothold in the region that could threaten NATO allies.
US Brigadier General Gregory Hadfield, deputy director of intelligence, said that the US tracked the MiG-29s and Su-24 fighter bombers flown in by Russian military, passing through Iran and Syria before landing at Libya’s al-Jufra air base.
The base is the main forward airfield for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army, which has been waging an offensive to capture Tripoli.
“If Russia secures a permanent position in Libya and, worse, deploys long-range missile systems, it will be a game changer for Europe, NATO and many Western nations,” Hadfield said.
Russia’s interference in Libya gives it access to that country’s oil and a “military base strategically positioned in striking distance of Europe,” he said.
Russia has denied links to the aircraft, calling the claim “stupidity.”
Former commander of the Russian Air Force Viktor Bondarev, who heads the defense committee in the Russian Federal Assembly, said the planes are not Russian, but could be Soviet-era aircraft owned by other African nations.
Hadfield disputed that, saying that there were none of those aircraft in that part of Africa.
“Not only did we watch them fly from Russia by way of Iran and Syria to Libya, we were able to photograph them at multiple points,” he said.
Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. The country is now split between a government in the east allied with Haftar and one in Tripoli, in the west, supported by the UN.
Hadfield said the fighter aircraft would likely provide close air support and offensive strikes for the Wagner Group, a Russia-based state-sponsored company that employs mercenaries to fight alongside the eastern forces of Haftar.
Haftar’s forces launched an offensive to capture Tripoli last year, clashing with an array of militias loosely allied with the UN-supported, but weak government there. Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli-allied militias are aided by Turkey, Qatar and Italy.
In an interview, Hadfield said that the new fighter aircraft have not yet been used.
However, they would have to be flown either by pilots from Russia or contractors employed by Wagner, he said.
There have been about 2,000 personnel at the base, but more have been flown in, he said.
Another concern is that there also are Russian surface-to-air missiles there, Hadfield said, but added that they are older models, not state-of-the-art weapons.
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