International observers are sounding the alarm about an alliance between Russian mercenaries and a Libyan militia, which they say imperils civilians and risks intensifying Libya’s civil war.
In recent weeks, forces loyal to Libyan General Khalifa Haftar have retreated from neighborhoods surrounding Tripoli. In their wake, human rights groups and the U.S. military say they left behind Russian-made landmines — many of them planted in residential neighborhoods.
The U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, and independent analysts accuse mercenaries with the Wagner Group, a private Russian company, of being behind the mines. Late last month, AFRICOM said in a tweet that Russia and the Wagner Group continue to be involved in both ground and air operations in Libya and that Russia continues to play an unhelpful role in Libya by delivering supplies and equipment to the Wagner Group.
“They've been involved in kind of booby trapping civilian neighborhoods, setting up defense systems in the middle of oil fields and oil terminals and really kind of preparing for an enlarged conflict, and they are being supported militarily by Russia,” said Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow with North Africa and the Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Megerisi said the Russians are making little effort to conceal their actions. “We see Russian planes regularly traveling from Russia to Syria and then from Syria to Libya where they're bringing arms and they're also allegedly bringing Syrian mercenaries to join up with the Russian groups,” he told VOA.
In May, a top AFRICOM official said Russia was further destabilizing Libya to gain a stronghold in northern Africa, just as it has in eastern Europe and the Middle East. Brigadier General Gregory Hadfield, AFRICOM deputy director for intelligence, said fighter jets and bomber aircraft were “flown by members of the Russian military” into Libya “by way of Iran and Syria” to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors who are helping forces fighting the U.N.-supported Libyan government.
He said the U.S. also was aware of additional Russian cargo planes and personnel that have been brought in, along with older surface-to-air missiles.
Moscow has denied the recent deployment and described AFRICOM’s accusation as “crazy talk.”
Civilians, many of whom are returning to their homes after a forced evacuation, are falling victim to the mines. According to a July 13 U.N. report, landmines or booby traps had killed 52 people and injured 96 in southern Tripoli. Since then, Libyan media outlets have reported more carnage, including a July 16 mine explosion that injured three children.
Haftar’s forces, called the Libyan National Army, are based in the east of the country. More than a year ago, they advanced on Tripoli, where the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) is based. Haftar said he wanted to restore order and end terrorism in the country. But for nearly a year, the forces were stalled outside the Libyan capital.
Megersi said the goal of the LNA booby traps is simple: kill and maim as many people as possible to discourage forces loyal to the GNA.
“This is really just a way to slow down the government troops to make sure that they couldn't stay hot on their heels,” he said. “But also just to kind of suck the joy of victory out of the morale from the government-aligned forces. Because they've gone from finally freeing Tripoli from this conflict and lifting the siege to losing over 100 people in the space of a month as they go house to house trying to unpick these booby traps.”
Megerisi says Russia also is printing billions of counterfeit Libyan dinars to finance Haftar’s army and undermine the overall Libyan economy by causing inflation. “These cash injections and this kind of parallel currency that they've printed on behalf of Haftar has allowed this opposition or entity to remain solvent and to be able to continue buying weapons, buying mercenaries and prosecuting this war against the Libyan government,” Megerisi said.
Haftar’s forces and their Russian allies have returned to the eastern part of the country. At the same time Russia, as well as Egypt, another Haftar ally, have called for a cease-fire. This has led some to wonder whether this might pave the way for a partitioning of the country between Haftar and the GNA.
David Des Roches, an associate professor at the National Defense University, a military education institution in Washington, warned that Russia’s history in other parts of the world indicate a cease-fire may be a precursor to further attacks.
“What we've seen in Syria is when Russia calls for a cease-fire and negotiated settlement, what they're really doing is buying time when they're in a position of tactical weakness as the Russian-backed Haftar forces are in Libya now,” Pack said.
Roches says he fears that Russia and its Libyan allies will use any cease-fire to prepare for a new onslaught to take the capital. “Haftar’s forces are losing. Russia wants a timeout so they can build up defenses so that they can eventually surge and hopefully take Tripoli,” he said.
Mohamed Elshinnawi contributed to this report.