US and Russia bolster allies in Libya as long conflict intensifies

A member of the Libyan National Army (LNA) points his gun to an image of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on a Turkish military armored vehicle: REUTERS

The US has warned Russia after Moscow sent war planes to back its main ally, General Khalifa Haftar, in a flare-up of the Libya conflict. The US plans to counter Moscow by sending “training forces” to neighbouring Tunisia.

For over a year General Haftar has been encircling the capital, Tripoli, claiming he should be Libya’s single ruler.

Backed by Egypt and the UAE, as well as Russia, he says that the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) is the tool of an alliance of Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.

General Haftar leads a mixture of tribal militias and mercenaries, thought to include 1,200 fighters from the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organisation.

Last month his forces lost a strategic air base at al-Watiya. This opened a supply road to the Tunisian border. Since then GNA forces have been taking key coastal towns such as Sabratha.

On the battlefield the use of Turkish drones and anti-drone jamming systems seem to have been decisive.

At al-Watiya they destroyed Chinese drones supplied by the UAE. Following the strikes, hundreds of Wagner Group mercenaries were said to have been flown in Russian freight aircraft to desert bases.

According to the US Pentagon, Moscow has supplied General Haftar with MiG-29 and Su-24 strike planes – though the Russian markings appear to have been painted out at a stop­over in Syria.

Meanwhile Turkey has reinforced GNA forces with Hawk anti-aircraft missiles and 7,500 militiamen shipped in from the Syrian border.

“It’s a pretty bloody stalemate,” said Alison Pargeter, an expert on Libya at King’s College London.