Russian mercenaries have planted mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in support of a rebel leader in Libya whose forces have been struggling against the U.S.-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli, U.S. Africa Command said Wednesday.
U.S. intelligence has "clear evidence" that hired fighters from the Russia-based "Wagner Group" have "laid landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in and around Tripoli," extending east to the city of Sirte, the stronghold of Khalifa Haftar and the so-called Libyan National Army.
"Verified photographic evidence shows indiscriminately placed booby traps and minefields around the outskirts of Tripoli down to Sirte since mid-June," AFRICOM said. "These weapons are assessed to have been introduced into Libya by the Wagner Group."
Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement in the Libya fighting, but the AFRICOM statement made clear that the Wagner Group is backed by and paid for by the Russian state. AFRICOM described the mercenaries as working for the "Russian-employed, state-sponsored Wagner Group."
"The Russian state-sponsored Wagner Group is demonstrating a total disregard for the safety and security of Libyans" in planting the mines and IEDs, said Marine Maj. Gen. Bradford Gering, AFRICOM's director of operations. "Russia has the power to stop them, just not the will."
The AFRICOM statement followed on charges in May by Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, the AFRICOM commander, that Russia had sent 14 advanced MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter aircraft to Libya in an effort to prop up the forces of Haftar, a former Libyan army general who holds U.S. citizenship.
"Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya," Townsend said in a May 26 statement on what has become a proxy war in the country, involving U.S. allies on either side of the conflict.
Haftar's forces hold sway in much of eastern Libya but have recently suffered a series of setbacks in the long-stalled attempt to take Tripoli from the internationally recognized Government of National Accord.
Haftar has the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, while NATO ally Turkey has increasingly deployed air and naval assets in support of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj's GNA.
In the AFRICOM statement Wednesday, Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, AFRICOM's intelligence director, said, "Our intelligence reflects continued and unhelpful involvement by Russia and the Wagner Group. Imagery and intelligence assessments show how Russia continues to interfere in Libyan affairs."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.