UN experts say mercenaries from the Vagner group, a Russian private security firm, are supporting Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar in his battle to capture the capital, Tripoli.
A UN panel monitoring Libya sanctions said in a report obtained by the AP, AFP, and Reuters news agencies on May 6 that the shadowy group has between 800 and 1,200 military contractors in Libya, including snipers and specialized military teams.
The Vagner group is believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Controlled by Kremlin-linked Russian financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, it is involved in conflicts ranging from those in Ukraine and Syria to African nations.
U.S. media has previously reported on Vagner deploying to Libya, but this is the first time its presence has been confirmed in a UN report. Moscow has denied the Russian state is responsible for any deployments.
An expert report provided to the UN Security Council on April 24 said that Vagner "has been providing technical support for the repair of military vehicles, participating in combat operations, and engaging in influence operations" in Libya.
'Specialized Military Tasks'
The private security firm is also involved in "more specialized military tasks such as acting as artillery Forward Observation Officers and Forward Air Controllers, providing electronic countermeasures expertise and deploying as sniper teams," it said.
More than two dozen civilian aircraft flights between Russia and eastern Libya from August 2018 to August 2019 were "strongly linked to, or owned by" the Vagner group or affiliated companies, the report said.
Libya has been torn by civil war since a NATO-backed popular uprising ousted and killed the North African country’s longtime dictator Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
The conflict pits Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army in the east against the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord in the western city of Tripoli, the country's capital.
The UN panel said it identified that the Vagner group has been in Libya since October 2018. Since then, it has "acted as an effective force multiplier" for Haftar’s forces.
The report said forces affiliated with the Government of National Accord had captured arms "typical of the weaponry observed being used by [Vagner] operatives elsewhere in eastern Ukraine and Syria."
It also said Vagner forces use equipment typical of the Russian military.
However, the report said that there were tensions between Vagner and Haftar, who is known to be notoriously stubborn.
Libya’s 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.
The UN panel said that a Russian company has been recruiting Syrian fighters since at least the beginning of 2020.
“It is estimated from ground sources that the number of Syrian foreign fighters supporting Haftar’s operations is less than 2,000," the report said.
The experts estimated the total number of Syrian fighters in Libya at around 5,000, but “this almost certainly includes those fighters recruited by Turkey” to support the government in Tripoli.
The report also confirms the private Russian security company, Rossiskie System Bezopasnosti (RSB) Group, is in Libya "providing maintenance and repair support for military aircraft."
It said that sanctions monitors are still evaluating reports that two other Russian private security organizations -- Security Group and Schit Security Group -- are active in Libya.
The UN experts said most Vagner contractors are Russian nationals, but there are also citizens of Belarus, Moldova, Serbia, and Ukraine.