U.S. Warns Against Russia’s Growing Role in Libya War

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. urged Libya’s Russian-backed eastern commander Khalifa Haftar to end his offensive on Tripoli and said it would support the internationally-backed government against any effort by Moscow to exploit the months-long conflict in the OPEC member.

“The U.S. delegation, representing a number of U.S. government agencies, underscored support for Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s attempts to exploit the conflict against the will of the Libyan people,” the State Department said in a statement.

The warning is the strongest to come from the U.S. since Haftar marched on the capital in April, signaling growing concern over the deployment of Russian mercenaries to the North African oil-exporter.

It comes days after Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who heads the UN-backed government, called on the U.S. to help.

A private army linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin has been fighting on the front lines of the Libyan war for nearly three months, the latest projection of Russian power following a decisive military intervention on the side of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

More than 100 mercenaries from the Wagner group headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, also known as “Putin’s chef” for his Kremlin catering contracts, arrived at a forward base in Libya in the first week of September to bolster Haftar, whose forces have been bogged down on the outskirts of the capital since April.

Their numbers have since risen to more than 1,400 troops involved in direct fighting and manning artillery, according to three Western officials. Wagner has also brought in pilots. One official said 25 pilots, trainers and support crew had been deployed. Two others said the pilots were flying missions in refurbished Sukhoi-22 jets belonging to Haftar.

Russia has officially denied the presence of Wagner troops in Libya.

Libya has been wracked by violence ever since the NATO-backed ouster of Moammar Qaddafi in 2011. Years of instability allowed Libya to become a breeding ground for Islamist radicals, and a magnet for migrants hoping to reach Europe. 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 dueling governments in Tripoli and the east.

The U.S. has mostly watched from the sidelines as conflict raged in the country that sits on top of Africa’s largest proven oil reserves. It’s sent mixed messages about its Libya policy, officially calling for a cease-fire even as President Donald Trump indicated support for Haftar in a phone call at the beginning of the offensive.

Its latest message, however, suggests a more decisive shift in policy with the launch of a “U.S.-Libya Security Dialogue.” It came after a meeting in Washington attended by the Libyan interior and foreign ministers.

“This is more a reaction to the Russian presence in Libya than an endorsement of the Government of National Accord itself,” said Emad Badi, a Libya researcher and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

“There are two main issues now: whether this reactive approach will lead to anything constructive, and whether the sentiment expressed in the U.S. State Department is shared by other policy levers in the U.S. institutional apparatus.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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