Russia has reportedly dispatched special forces to western Egypt near the Libyan border, amid growing US concerns over increasing Russian involvement in Libya.
The deployment of Russian soldiers, reported on by Reuters Monday, was apparently made in order to further boost Russia’s involvement in war-torn Libya and support Khalifa Hifter, a militia commander in eastern Libya who despite being backed by Egypt has been shunned by the US.
According to unnamed US security officials who spoke with Reuters, the Russian contingent of special forces and drones are operating in the area of Sidi Barrani, some 60 miles from Egypt’s border with Lybia.
Although an Egyptian army spokesman denied any Russian troops were in Egypt, anonymous Egyptian security officials confirmed to Reuters that a special forces unit comprised of 22 soldiers is currently operating in Egypt, while adding that Russia also used an Egyptian base in February in the area of the port city of Marsa Matrouh.
Reuters also reported on Monday that a group of Russian mercenaries was recently operating in eastern Libya in an area near the city of Benghazi under Hifter’s control.
There was no immediate comment from Moscow.
Last week, General Thomas D. Waldhauser, who heads the US Military’s Africa Command, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Russia is trying to “do a Syria” in Libya.
“Russia is trying to exert influence on the ultimate decision of who and what entity becomes in charge of the government inside Libya,” Fox News quoted him as saying.
The report on the deployment of Russian special operations forces near Libya followed a recent military setback for Hifter, whose fighters were expelled from Libya’s main oil shipping terminals earlier this month in fighting with rival militias.
Hifter’s forces seized the Ras Lanuf refinery and nearby Sidr depot last year. The Obama administration had joined the UN in calling on him to hand them over to the Tripoli government. Hifter had seemed more inclined to use them as a bargaining chip to force a rewriting of the peace accord.
Hifter travels regularly to Cairo and insiders have said he flew there shortly after losing control of the terminals.His army says it is massing forces east of the terminals, awaiting orders. Their strength is unclear but they can call on reserves of thousands of eastern Libyan fighters and tribesman and are backed by Libyan and foreign air support.
Hifter, an army general, former CIA asset and US citizen who lived nearly 20 years in American exile, is the most powerful figure in the east, touting himself as the champion against Islamic militants in Libya — though his enemies accuse him of aiming to become a new dictator like Muammar Gaddafi, who was overthrown and killed in the country’s 2011 Arab Spring revolt.
He has talked of marching to take Tripoli to unite the country, hinting that he aims to rule. He opposed the government set up by the UN peace deal because it would have pushed him out as head of the military.
The general is backed by Egypt and Russia, but Washington under the Obama administration kept him at arm’s length.
One key question in his future will be whether the US warms up to him under President Donald Trump, who has sounded more favorable to Egypt and more open to dealing with regional strongmen.
He commands a collection of militias and eastern tribal forces as well as the remnants of the Libyan National Army, including Gadhafi-era officers.
Hifter is also allied to the eastern-based parliament, which was the last legislature to be elected in Libya and had to flee east when opponents took over the west in 2014.