“U.S. Africa Command assesses that Moscow recently deployed military fighter aircraft to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors operating on the ground there,” the US military’s Africa Command said in a statement.
Two US defense officials told CNN there were “several” Russian military aircraft deployed.
A third defense official said that “at least” 14 Russian aircraft had been flown to Libya.
Africa Command also released a surveillance photograph which it said showed the Russian aircraft, a MiG-29, in Libya.
The US has long accused Moscow of using Russian mercenaries to bolster its preferred side in Libya’s civil war, the forces led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, with the aim of securing access to Libya’s vast energy deposits while also establishing a position on NATO’s southern flank.
“Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fires for the Wagner Group PMC that is supporting the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) fight against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord,” the statement said, saying the aircraft arrived in Libya from Russia via Syria “where it is assessed they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin.”
A US defense official told CNN that earlier this month the Russian Air Force jets flew from Russia to Khmeimim Air Base in Syria, where the MiG-29 jets were repainted to remove national markings.
The newly unmarked jets then departed Syria, escorted by Russian fighter aircraft based in Syria, and flew to Libya, landing in Eastern Libya near Tobruk for fuel, according to the official.
The warplanes were then delivered to Al Jufra Air Base in Libya, closer to the civil war’s front lines.
Haftar’s forces have suffered some tactical setbacks in recent days as the UN recognized government in Tripoli has received backing from Turkey, including armed drones, enabling it to push Haftar’s troops farther from the capital.
Haftar had recently reportedly pledged to mount a large-scale air campaign to reverse the recent setbacks.
“The world heard Mr. Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of Africa Command said in the statement Tuesday.
The state department said Friday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with the leader of the Tripoli-based government, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj “ to reiterate U.S. opposition to the continued level of weapons and munitions being brought into the country,” according to a State Department spokesperson.