A buildup of Russian fighter jets in Libya has made U.S. officials concerned that Russia intends to escalate its foothold in the region, similar to the way it did with its air campaign in Syria, according to a top general.
Speaking to reporters during a call Thursday, Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, head of U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa, said officials are particularly troubled that inexperienced mercenaries could be flying the jets, which may cause unnecessary collateral damage if the pilots are conducting bombing runs in densely populated areas.
"This naturally in my mind raises some concerns, particularly when you talk about civilian casualties," Harrigian said.
U.S. Africa Command earlier Thursday had released satellite images proving MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-24 Fencer fighter aircraft have been operating in Libyan airspace. They also showed that the Russian-made "Spoon Rest" mobile early warning radar system had been deployed there.
"USAFRICOM has photographic evidence of a Russian aircraft taking off from al-Jufra, Libya; a MiG-29 was also photographed operating in the vicinity of the city of Sirte, Libya," according to an AFRICOM release.
In May, AFRICOM first observed the fighter aircraft arriving in Libya from an air base in Russia after transiting Syria, "where it is assessed they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin."
The number of jets in the region now, including MiG-23s, is in the "upper teens," Harrigian added.
"As demonstrated by the release of the photos today, they've continued to build on what I would call their intent to have a better understanding of the air domain," Harrigian said. "[They're] looking to leverage those fighters in a manner that ultimately could influence the broader outcomes that could occur down there.
"My concern has been that should Russia gain a more permanent foothold, as they have demonstrated with what they have done in Syria, that's going to be a significant security concern to our European flank to the south," he said.
Russian militant activity in Libya has been partly carried out by the Wagner Group, U.S. officials have noted. The state-sponsored private military contractor is believed to be owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has close ties to President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian mercenaries have taken the side of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar, a former Libyan field marshal who lived for nearly two decades in the U.S. and gained American citizenship. LNA holds sway in much of eastern Libya, but has recently suffered a series of setbacks in its long-stalled attempt to take Tripoli from the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
Harrigian said the U.S. is not providing intelligence to GNA forces at this time. Regarding "any buildup of integrated air defense from a surface-to-air missile capability, we haven't seen any of that thus far," he said.
"What we're seeing play out in Africa is really more along the lines of global power competition," Harrigian said, adding extremist groups and Chinese activity make up a range of dynamic forces operating across the continent.
The goal is for its African partners to remain interoperable with the U.S., and not become reliant on adversary resources, he said.
"It's important that as the U.S., we remain engaged at the appropriate level, and look for opportunities that allow us to compete in a manner that supports our partners," Harrigian said.
"As we look across the continent, it's going to be a little bit different across the different regions, but importantly, we need to recognize that there is competition occurring down there, and we need to be in the game."
-- Richard Sisk contributed to this report.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.