Russia appears to have deployed special forces to an airbase in western Egypt near the border with Libya in recent days, U.S., Egyptian and diplomatic sources say, a move that would add to U.S. concerns about Moscow’s deepening role in Libya, according to an exclusive report by Reuters.
According to U.S. and diplomatic officials, the Russian deployment would be part of a bid to support Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar who suffered a massive blow after he lost control over oil terminals on Libya’s Mediterranean coast following an attack by the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) on March 3.
“The United States has observed what appeared to be Russian special operations forces and drones at Sidi Barrani, about 60 miles (100 km) from the Egypt-Libya border, “said U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Moreover, an Egyptian security sources gave more detailed information describing a 22-member Russian special forces unit, but declined to discuss its mission. In addition, they also said that Russia used another Egyptian base farther east in Marsa Matrouh in early February.
In fact, the apparent Russian deployments have not been previously reported. Reuters reported that Russian defense ministry did not immediately provide comment and Egypt denied the presence of any Russian contingent on its soil.
Egyptian army spokesman Tamer al-Rifai said,”There is no foreign soldier from any foreign country on Egyptian soil. This is a matter of sovereignty.”
The U.S. military declined comment. Officials say, “U.S. intelligence on Russian military activities is often complicated by its use of contractors or forces without uniforms.”
The Egyptian sources said that the Russian military aircraft flew about six military units to Marsa Matrouh before the aircraft continued to Libya about 10 days later.
On the other hand, Mohamed Manfour, commander of Benina air base near Benghazi, denied that Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) had received military assistance from the Russian state or from Russian military contractors, and said there were no Russian forces or bases in eastern Libya.
It is worth to mention that several western countries, including the U.S., have sent special operations forces and military advisors into Libya over the past two years.
Based on an request form the leader of the UN backed government, U.S. military also carried out air strikes to support a successful Libyan campaign last year to oust Islamic State from its stronghold in the city of Sirte.
Moreover, a leaked air traffic control recording was obtained by Middle East Eye revealed Emirati fighter pilots participating in an international operation which is also involving British, French and US forces in support of renegade General Khalifa Haftar against rival militia groups in eastern Libya.
This was the second leaked recording that unveils the presence of western and Arab forces assisting Khalifa Haftar behind the scenes.
Last July, MEE also reported that a multinational military operation involving UAE, British, French and US forces is coordinating air strikes in support of a renegade general battling Islamist militia groups from Benina air base near Benghazi in eastern Libya.
However, Russia’s role in Libya coincide with growing concerns in Washington about Moscow’s intentions toward the oil-rich country, which has fallen into chaos in the aftermath of a 2011 NATO-backed the revolution against Libya’s former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, who was a client of the former Soviet Union.
The U.N.-backed government, known as the Government of National Accord(GNA)in Tripoli,is in a political deadlock with Haftar, and the Russian officials have met with both sides in recent months.
“Moscow appears prepared to back up its public diplomatic support for Haftar even though Western governments were already irked at Russia’s intervention in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad,”said Reuters.
Last January, General Khalifa Haftar took a tour on Russia’s aircraft carrier positioned off the Libyan coast and held a video call with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, which was a remarkable sign of the growing ties between the Kremlin and the eastern Libya’s strongman.
Haftar has also visited Moscow twice last year. Last December, Khalifa Haftar has arrived in Moscow on an official visit to Russia for talks with Russian officials.
Haftar reportedly met with senior Russian officials including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as well as the Russian National Security Council.
In June Haftar also visited Moscow when he met with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev.
In the same context,force of several dozen armed private security contractors from Russia operated until February in a part of Libya that is under Haftar’s control, as reported by Reuters that cited the statement of the head of the firm that hired the contractors .
Last week, the top U.S. military commander overseeing troops in Africa, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, stated in front of the U.S. Senate that Russia was trying to exert influence in Libya to strengthen its leverage over whoever ultimately holds power.
Waldhauser told the Senate Armed Services Committee,”They’re working to influence that.”
When Waldhauser was asked whether it was in the U.S. interest to let that happen, Waldhauser said, “It is not.”
According to a U.S. intelligence official ,”Russia’s aim in Libya appeared to be an effort to “regain a toe-hold where the Soviet Union once had an ally in Gaddafi.”
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity said ,”At the same time, as in Syria, they appear to be trying to limit their military involvement and apply enough to force some resolution but not enough to leave them owning the problem.”
Moreover, when Waldhauser was asked by U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham whether Russia was trying to do in Libya what it did in Syria, he said,”Yes, that’s a good way to characterize it.”
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia was looking to back Haftar, although its initial focus would likely be on Libya’s “oil crescent.”
The diplomat said,”It is pretty clear the Egyptians are facilitating Russian engagement in Libya by allowing them to use these bases. There are supposedly training exercises taking place there at present.”
Although the reports about Russia’s special forces deployed to an airbase in western Egypt were not confirmed, but there are strong indications that such possibility could be true.
First, Russia has been deepening its relations with Egypt since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reached power in a military coup in 2013. Last October, the two countries held joint military exercises for the first time – something the U.S. and Egypt did regularly until 2011.
At that time, Russia’s Izvestia newspaper said that Moscow was in talks to open or lease an airbase in Egypt.
However, Egypt’s state-owned Al Ahram newspaper, quoted the presidential spokesman as saying Egypt would not allow foreign bases. “There was no official agreement on the Russian use of Egyptian bases. There were, however, intensive consultations over the situation in Libya,”according to Egyptian sources.
Second, al-Sisi is known for his strong support to Haftar. It was previously reported that Egypt’s al-Sisi sent weapons to Libya’s military strongman, in addition to military personnel, in order to train the Libyan National Army , Haftar’s militias.
Moreover, the Egyptian Armed Forces have been mandated to protect the joint borders from the sea to the Libyan-Sudanese borders.
In fact, Haftar had previously requested the Egyptian army to protect Libyan/Egyptian borders from Imsaad, in the north, to the Libyan/Sudanese borders, as well as the maritime boundaries between both countries, “meaning that Haftar has granted Egypt unprecedented authority on Libyan territory,” said Libya Prospect.
He also said the oil tankers transporting Libyan petrol from Haftar-controlled regions in the east will be under Egypt’s authority in practice, the oil tankers will only be able to carry the oil and export unless Cairo approves.
In addition, there were strong indications that Haftar succeeded in controlling the oil terminals eastern Libya with the assistance of the Egyptian Armed Forces.
Egypt warplanes assisted Haftar’s forces against the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) who tried to regain control over Ras Lanuf oil terminal and the Gulf of Sidra. However, the PFG -led by Ibrahim Jadhran- have withdrawn from the Oil Crescent region in east Libya as a result of the warplanes attack.
At that time, the Defense Ministry in the UN backed government indicated that “foreign warplanes have played a key role in defeating PFG forces.”
Libya Observer cited local media which reported that the “PFG accused Egypt and the UAE of bombing their forces near the residential district of Ras Lanuf. Four PFG fighters were killed in the airstrikes.”
The Defense Minister-designate Al-Mihdi Al-Baraghati told Ajwa Net that “There are strong indications that the UAE and Egyptian warplanes bombed PFG forces in Ras Lanuf and Sidra, we are now making sure of these indications.”
Third, last week an Egyptian diplomatic source said that Haftar was invited to attend an emergency military meeting in Cairo, also set to include Russian and Emirati representatives, in the coming days, according to the New Arab.
According to the diplomatic source, the meeting is set to be headed by the chief of staff of the Egyptian Army Mohammad Hegazi, and will seek to develop a clear vision to enable Haftar to retake al-Sidra and Ras Lanuf.