US accuses Russia of deploying fighter jets to Libya to boost mercenaries

US accuses Russia of deploying fighter jets to Libya to boost mercenaries
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The U.S. military accused Moscow on Tuesday of deploying fighter jets to Libya to bolster Russian mercenaries fighting in support of rebel commander Khalifa Haftar.

In a news release, U.S. Africa Command (Africom) said Russia recently deployed the aircraft for a likely mission of providing close air support and offensive fire for the Wagner Group private military contractor, which is supporting Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in its fight against the U.N.-backed Libyan government.

Satellite imagery accompanying the news release showed what Africom said were Russian MiG-29 fighter jets at a base in Libya.

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"Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya,," Africom commander Gen. Stephen Townsend said in a statement. "For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth generation jet fighters to Libya — every step of the way. Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support — support they are getting from Russia."

The aircraft originated from an airbase in Russia and transited through Syria, where Africom assesses they were “repainted to camouflage their Russian origin,” according to the release.

Africom’s statement comes after reports earlier this month first said Russia deployed aircraft to Libya. Russia denies any involvement in the conflict or state sponsorship of mercenaries.

Libya has been embroiled in conflict since NATO-backed forces overthrew Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. In April 2019, Haftar launched an offensive to take Tripoli, intensifying the civil war.

Haftar has recently suffered a series of setbacks after Turkey intervened in support of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

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After the losses, Haftar’s air force chief vowed to unleash the “largest aerial campaign in Libyan history.”

“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,” Townsend said in his statement Tuesday.

The United States supports the GNA. On Friday, Secretary of  State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Air Force general officially becomes first African American service chief | Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure | State Department's special envoy for Iran is departing the Trump administration State Department offers M reward for foreign election interference information State Department's special envoy for Iran is departing the Trump administration MORE  spoke with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj  ”to reiterate U.S. opposition to the continued level of weapons and munitions being brought into the country,” the State Department said in a statement.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE also spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about Libya on Saturday. In the call, Trump “reiterated concern over worsening foreign interference in Libya and the need for rapid de-escalation,” according to a White House statement.