The U.S. military has provided more details about an alleged Russian deployment of fighter jets to Libya, as officials in Russia continued to deny the presence of Russian military aircraft or personnel in the North African country.
The United States says Moscow deployed the jets to provide support for Russian mercenaries helping a local warlord battle Libya’s internationally recognized government.
The alleged deployment could have a big impact on the war pitting the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar and forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is recognized by the United Nations.
The conflict has drawn in multiple regional actors, with Russia, France, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates backing Haftar's command.
Turkey, which deployed troops, drones, and Syrian rebel mercenaries to Libya in January, supports the government in Tripoli, alongside Qatar and Italy.
As Libya continues to be subjected to a UN arms embargo, the U.S. military's Africa Command (AFRICOM) on May 26 said it assessed Russia had recently deployed military jets to Libya via Syria to support Russian mercenaries fighting alongside the LNA. It said the jets were repainted in Syria to remove Russian Federation Air Force markings.
In a tweet on May 27, AFRICOM added that MiG-29 and Su-24 fighters bearing Russian Federation Air Force markings departed Russia “over multiple days in May.”
After the aircraft landed at the Russian military base of Hmeimim in western Syria, the MiG-29s “are repainted and emerge with no national markings.”
AFRICOM wrote in a separate tweet that the jets were flown by “Russian military personnel” and were escorted to Libya by “Russian fighters” based in Syria.
The planes first landed near Tobruk in eastern Libya to refuel, it said, adding: “At least 14 newly unmarked Russian aircraft are then delivered to Al Jufra Air Base” in central Libya, an LNA stronghold.
Meanwhile, LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari denied that new jets had arrived, calling it "media rumors and lies," according to Reuters.
Viktor Bondarev, the chairman of the Federation Council’s committee on defense and security, dismissed the U.S. claims as "stupidity."
“If the warplanes are in Libya, they are Soviet, not Russian,” Bondarev said.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy head of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee, said Russia had not sent military personnel to Libya and the Russian upper house of parliament has not received a request to approve such a dispatch.
Vagner Group, a private military contractor believed to be close to the Kremlin, has been helping Haftar's forces. A UN report earlier this month estimated the number of Russian mercenaries at between 800 and 1,200.
The Bondarev and Dzhabarov comments are the latest denials from Moscow that the Russian state is responsible for any deployments.
But U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, commander of AFRICOM, said on May 26: "For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth-generation jet fighters to Libya -- every step of the way."
Oil-rich Libya has been torn by civil war since a NATO-backed popular uprising ousted and killed the country’s longtime dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, in 2011.
Haftar, who controls the eastern part of the country, is seeking to capture the capital, Tripoli, from GNA forces.
But his LNA lost a string of western towns and a key air base in the past two months after Turkey stepped up military support for his rivals.