U.S. Says Russia Entry in Libyan War Spurs Rise in Civilian Toll

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. ambassador to Libya said growing Russian support for eastern commander Khalifa Haftar’s offensive to take Tripoli has led to an increase in civilian casualties.

Haftar, whose forces are backed by mercenaries from the Wagner group that’s headed by a confidant of President Vladimir Putin, last week announced the start of a final battle to take the capital after months of stalemate on its outskirts.

“We are watching with great concern the escalation that is taking place in Libya and the region from this conflict,” American ambassador Richard Norland told reporters in the Tunisian capital after a meeting on reforming Libya’s economy. There’s been “a very significant impact in terms of civilian casualties” following Russia’s involvement, he said.

The Russian deployment has further complicated international efforts to end the fighting in the North African oil producer. The United Arab Emirates had already entered the war on Haftar’s behalf, while Turkey has been assisting the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.

The U.S. is now pressing harder for a peace deal, after months of mostly watching from the sidelines of Libya’s war.

Libya has been wracked by violence ever since the NATO-backed ouster of Moammar Qaddafi in 2011, with the instability allowing Libya to become a bastion for Islamist radicals and a magnet for migrants hoping to reach Europe.

‘Pyrrhic Victory’

Haftar launched his campaign on Tripoli just as the United Nations was laying the groundwork for a conference meant to reunite the divided country, which has the Government of National Accord, or GNA, in Tripoli and a dueling one in Tobruk allied with Haftar.

Haftar’s spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari told Bloomberg that his Libyan National Army still believed it could capture the capital after eight months of deadlock. Haftar’s fighters have announced several such operations in the past without winning any breakthroughs.

Norland said that even if there were a military solution, it would be “at such a high cost of civilian lives and other kinds of costs that it would be what we would call a Pyrrhic victory.”

More than 1,000 Russian mercenaries have been deployed to Libya since September, according to Western officials. Russia and the LNA deny the troops are fighting alongside Haftar’s forces.

In November, a U.S. army drone was shot down over Libya by a surface-to-air missile system believed to have been operated by Russian mercenaries or the LNA. Norland said the U.S. has not yet retrieved the wreckage.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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