A force of several dozen armed private security contractors from Russia operated until last month in a part of Libya that is under the control of regional leader Khalifa Haftar, the head of the firm that hired the contractors told Reuters.
It is the clearest signal to date that Moscow is prepared to back up its public diplomatic support for Haftar — even at the risk of alarming Western governments already irked at Russia’s intervention in Syria.
Haftar is opposed to a UN-backed government which Western states see as the best chance of restoring stability in Libya. But some Russian policymakers see the Libyan as a strongman who can end the six years of anarchy that followed the ousting of Muammar Qaddafi.
The presence of the military contractors was, according to the head of the firm, a commercial arrangement. It is unlikely though to have been possible without Moscow’s approval, according to people who work in the industry in Russia.
Oleg Krinitsyn, owner of private Russian firm RSB-group, said he sent the contractors to eastern Libya last year and they were pulled out in February having completed their mission.
In an interview with Reuters, he said their task was to remove mines from an industrial facility near the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, in an area that Haftar’s forces had liberated from rebels.
He declined to say who hired his firm to provide the contractors, where they were operating or what the industrial facility was. He did not say if the operation had been approved by the government, which most states view as the sovereign ruler of Libya. He declined to specify what type of weapons.
A UN arms embargo prohibits the import of weapons to Libya unless it is under the control of the government. Krinitsyn said his contractors were ready to strike back in case of an attack.
Underscoring Libya’s volatility, Haftar’s forces have this week been fighting to regain control over the Mediterranean oil terminals of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, which a rival faction seized earlier this month.
Russia has a record of using private military contractors as an extension of its own military.
In Syria, military contractors have been widely used in combat roles in conjunction with Russian regular forces and their Syrian allies, according to multiple accounts given to Reuters by people involved in the operations.