8 – 14 March: Reports of Russian forces in Libya, US concerned

Mar 14, 2017 | International actors

On 14 March, the UK, US, French and Italian ambassadors expressed their “strong concern” over the fate of Libya’s oil facilities and called for an end to hostilities in the Oil Crescent to protect Libya’s most critical oil asset. They said, “Oil infrastructure, production, export and revenues belong to the Libyan people and must remain under the exclusive control of the National Oil Corporation”. With the exception of Italy, all these ambassadors issued a similar statement when Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) drove back Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) forces back towards Brega in early March.

On 9 March, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the head of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), warned the US Senate’s foreign affairs committee that “Russia is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who becomes, and what entity becomes, in charge of the government inside Libya”. He stressed that Libya should be on the radar of President Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Waldhauser said “We’ve got to get the entities, specifically Haftar, and the Government of National Accord, together to make an accommodation.”

On 13 March, Reuters published a report claiming that a force of several dozen armed private security contractors from Russia operated until last month in eastern Libya. According to Reuters, the contractors were working for private Russian firm RSB-group, tasked with removing mines from an industrial facility near the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, in an area that Haftar’s forces had liberated from jihadist fighters.

In a report published on 14 March, Reuters said that Russia appears to have deployed a 22-member Russian Special Forces unit to the Sidi Barrani airbase, located about 100km from the Egypt-Libya border. US officials told Reuters that they had observed Russian drones being used at the base. Egyptian security sources told Reuters that Russia also used another Egyptian base farther east in Marsa Matrouh in early February. They said Russian military aircraft flew about six military units to Marsa Matrouh before the aircraft continued to Libya about 10 days later. It is not clear what the mission of these Russian forces is or why the information has only just been made public.

On 14 March, Abdelbasset al-Badri, a close advisor of Haftar, met with the LNA as they launch a counter attack against the BDB in the Oil Crescent. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that both parties “agreed on the importance to arrange a collective dialogue to be participated by representatives from all political and tribal groups.” On 14 March, Agilah Saleh, head of the House of Representatives (HoR), told the Russian news outlet Sputnik that the HoR and authorities in eastern Libya had called for Russian help in training armed forces, repairing military equipment, implementing Qadhafi-era arms contracts and assisting in the fight against terrorism.