The US military says that a drone it lost over Tripoli in late November was likely down by Russian air defences, and demands the return of the wreckage. Russia has reportedly increased its military activity in recent months, sending in mercenaries to fight on behalf of Haftar’s LNA forces as they try to take Tripoli.
US AFRICOM commander Gen. Stephen Townsend says he believes the operators of the Russian defence systems, whether Russian or LNA, were not aware the drone was American, however they do now and seem to be ignoring American calls to return the wreckage. Russian private military contractors, especially Wagner Group, are believed to be supplying significant help to Haftar’s LNA forces in the battle to take Tripoli, including providing snipers and advanced precision-guided capabilities. Townsend said “this highlights the malign influence of Russian mercenaries acting to influence the outcome of the civil war in Libya, and who are directly responsible for the recent and sharp increase in fighting, casualties and destruction around Tripoli”.
US Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, said he believes this is part of “Russia trying to put their finger on the scale” of the ongoing conflict in Libya. One Libyan GNA official who advises on US affairs, estimated as many as 1400 Russian mercenaries currently in Libya, fighting for the LNA.
As Russian involvement has been increasingly exposed in recent months, GNA officials said they will present a list of between 600- 800 suspected Russian mercenaries fighting for the opposition LNA, according to the AP. Their information is based on flight data from Syria into Libya, as well as intercepted communications and confiscated personal belongings left at battle scenes.
Moscow continues to deny any physical role in Libya’s fighting and connection to the groups of mercenaries operating there. Wagner Group and other Russian defence contractors are known to have sent mercenaries to other conflicts, including Syria, Ukraine and throughout the African continent. This strategy is believed to be Russia’s method of influencing conflicts and gaining leverage, while maintaining a high level of deniability.
On social media, Libya analyst Mohamed Eljarh, suggested that the US may be planning a special operation against Russian units in Libya – either to retrieve the drone or seek retaliation, perhaps through further exposing their operations.