All eyes on conflict torn Libya
Russia appears to deploy forces in Egypt to support local military commander
17 March, 2017
Russia has made a move to strengthen its role in Libya. The US and diplomatic officials from Cairo said last week that Moscow has deployed in recent days special forces and drones to the airbase at Sidi Barrani, in western Egypt, about 100 km from the Egypt-Libya border. Officially, Egypt denied the presence of any Russian contingent on its soil. But the sources, cited by Reuters, believe that the Russian deployment might be part of a bid to support Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, who suffered a setback with an attack on 3 March by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) on oil ports controlled by his forces. A force of several dozen armed private security contractors from Russia operated until February in a part of Libya that is under Haftar's control, the head of the firm that hired the contractors told Reuters. At the same time 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.
The top US military commander overseeing troops in Africa, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, told the US Senate a week ago that Russia was trying to exert influence in Libya to strengthen its leverage over whoever ultimately holds power. Russia's courting of Haftar, who tends to brand his armed rivals as Islamist extremists and who some Libyans see as the strongman their country needs after years of instability, has prompted others to draw parallels with Syria, another longtime Soviet client. 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". Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pledged this month to help unify Libya and foster dialogue when he met the leader of the UN-backed government Fayez Seraj.
Meanwhile last week Haftar's forces, which do not recognise the UN-backed government, mounted assault by land, sea and air to retake the ports of Ras Lanuf and Al-Sidra, after they were seized by a rival, Islamist-led force earlier this month.
In the capital Tripoli tension also escalated as militia loyal to former PM Khalifa Ghweil, whose administration was replaced by the UN-backed Government of National Accord last year, stepped up a campaign of defiance against its authority. Last Wednesday after heavy fighting, forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed unity government overran a complex of luxury villas in the city centre, where were the headquarters of the rival militia. The fighting brought life in the capital to a standstill with schools and shops closed. UN Libya envoy Martin Kobler last Tuesday appealed for an "immediate ceasefire".
Reuters recalls that several Western countries, including the US, have sent special operations forces and military advisors into Libya over the past two years. The US 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.