WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. Africa Command flatly 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 that were flown in by Russian military, 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 in Libya, he said, give it access to that country's oil and a “military base strategically positioned in striking distance of Europe.”
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. And, he said, “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 the eastern forces of Hifter.
Hifter’s forces launched an offensive to capture Tripoli last year, clashing with an array of militias loosely allied with the U.N.-supported but weak 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.
In an interview with a small group of reporters, Hadfield said the new fighter aircraft have not yet been used. But he said they will have to be flown either by pilots from Russia or contractors employed by Wagner. He said there have been about 2,000 personnel at the base, but more have been flown in.
Another concern, said Hadfield, is that there also are Russian surface-to-air missiles there. But currently, he said, they are older models, and not state-of-the-art weapons.
Eastern European nations have been increasingly concerned about Russia's expanding military involvement and incursions in the region, on NATO's southern flank.