US: Russian jets in Libya present worries for region

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THANASSIS STAVRAKIS/Associated Press

FILE – In this Jan. 17, 2020, file, photo, Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter joins a meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Athens. The U.S. military May 26, 2020 accused Russia of deploying fighter planes to conflict-stricken Libya to support Russian mercenaries aiding east-based forces in their offensive on the capital, Tripoli.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Africa Command rejected Russian claims that Moscow did not deploy fighter jets to Libya, saying Friday that the 14 aircraft flown in reflect Russia’s longer-term goal to establish a foothold in the region that could threaten NATO allies.

Brig. Gen. Gregory Hadfield, deputy director for intelligence, said the U.S. tracked the MiG-29 fighter jets and SU-24 fighter bombers Russian military flew in, passing through Iran and Syria before landing at Libya’s Al-Jufra air base. The base is the main forward airfield for Khalifa Hifter and his self-styled Libyan National Army that have 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,” said Hadfield.

Russia’s interference gives it access to Libya’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.” Instead, Viktor Bondarev, the former Russian air force chief who heads the defense committee in the upper house of parliament, said the planes are not Russian, but could be Soviet-era aircraft owned by other African nations.

Hadfield disputed that, saying there were none of those aircraft in that part of Africa. He added, “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.”

Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The country is now split between a government in the east allied with Hifter and one in Tripoli, in the west, supported by the United Nations.

Hadfield said the fighter aircraft will likely provide close air support and offensive strikes for the Wagner Group, a Russia-based state-sponsored company that employs mercenaries to fight alongside Hifter.

Hifter’s forces launched an offensive to capture Tripoli last year, clashing with an array of militias loosely allied with the weak, U.N.-supported government there. Hifter is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli-allied militias are aided by Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

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