Washington — U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) says Russia recently deployed military fighter aircraft to Libya to support Russian state-sponsored, private military contractors, who are helping forces fighting the U.N.-supported Libyan government.
The Russian fighter aircraft arrived at al-Jufra Airfield in Libya from an airbase in Russia after a stop in Syria where they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin, AFRICOM said Tuesday.
The fighter jets are expected to provide close air support for Russian military contractors with the Wagner Group, who have been supporting Libyan strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) in their yearlong offensive against the country's Government of National Accord (GNA).
AFRICOM commander Gen. Stephen Townsend called out Russia in a press release Tuesday for expanding its military footprint in Africa by sending mercenary pilots to "bomb Libyans."
"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," Townsend said.
He added that neither the LNA nor private military companies could arm and operate this type of aircraft without the "support they are getting from Russia."
In a phone call Saturday, President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shared their concerns about worsening foreign interference in Libya, according to the White House.
Turkey has provided military support to the internationally recognized GNA and has warned that attacks by Haftar's forces will have "grave consequences."
Critics of Russian involvement in Libya say Moscow's support of Haftar has increased the regional instability that has helped fuel Europe's migration crisis.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, warned Tuesday that Russia was setting up a means to create "real security concerns" for southern Europe in the near future.
"If Russia seizes basing on Libya's coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities," which are used to prevent adversaries from traveling across an area that the weapon protects, he said in a press release.