The MiG and Sukhoi combat aircraft that arrived recently in Libya were deployed by Russia, which changed the national markings of the planes while they transited in Syria in order to conceal their origin, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) said on May 26.
The planes were said to have been sent to support Russian state-sponsored military contractors fighting alongside military leader Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), which has recently been pushed even farther away from the capital Tripoli by government troops with the help of Turkish forces. There are reportedly up to 1,200 mercenaries from Russia's shadowy Wagner Group in Libya.
The US Africa Command also released imagery of the aircraft that flew from an unidentified base in Russia to Syria's Khmeimim air base, and from there to Libya's Al Jufra air base. A US defense official was quoted by CNN was saying at least 14 aircraft had been flown to the North African country.
“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,” said Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of AFRICOM.
“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,” said Gen. Townsend.
“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner,” he added.
According to commentators, Moscow is seeking a foothold in Libya due to the North African country's energy resources and strategic position near NATO countries, among others.