On August 19, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke at a joint news conference with Najla Mangoush, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in Libya’s Government of National Unity. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, a reporter asked:
“What is the status of implementing the agreement on the withdrawal of foreign troops from Libya, since Turkey is reluctant to discuss this issue, and the other parties refuse to even recognize their presence in Libya?”
Lavrov denied that Turkey and other parties had refused to discuss the issue of troop withdrawals, saying the matter had been raised at the Second Berlin Conference on Libya held June 23.
"The withdrawal of these troops must necessarily take place and this process has to be organized step by step,” Lavrov said according to the state owned TASS news agency
“This is the main thing, and not the attempts to divert the discussion into a talk about the legitimate and illegitimate forces there."
That is misleading.
It is true that the Second Berlin Conference on Libya highlighted the need to remove foreign troops from that country. As Germany’s Foreign Ministry said in a press release on the conclusions of the conference: “All foreign forces and mercenaries need to be withdrawn from Libya without delay, and the security sector reformed and placed firmly under unified, civilian authority and oversight.”
Of note: the word “mercenaries.”
Lavrov pointedly failed to mention the private Russian troops who’ve been involved in the Libyan conflict since 2019, fighting on the side of the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar against the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord. That explains why Lavrov spoke of “attempts to divert the discussion towards discussing certain players’ legitimacy or lack of it” – because the Russian presence is controversial.
The Wagner “private military company” (PMC) presence has been known and reported on since 2018. Most recently, BBC on August 11 published a new investigation detailing the extent of Wagner’s operations and backing up claims that its soldiers may have been involved in crimes against Libyan civilians.
The BBC also found further evidence that Wagner is deeply tied to the Russian government, despite official denials.
Wagner’s ties to the Russian Ministry of Defense aren’t new.
Officially, private military companies have no legal standing in Russia. Wagner, however, was allowed to use Russian military training facilities and took part in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014. The company gained more attention for operating alongside the Russian military in Syria.
Although Wagner is on paper a private company, its owner, the restaurateur and caterer Yevgeny Prigozhin, reportedly has close ties to President Vladimir Putin and contracts with Russia’s military. Besides Ukraine, Syria, and Libya, Wagner mercenaries have also been involved in conflicts in the Central African Republic and Mozambique.
The BBC managed to acquire a Samsung tablet that belonged to a Wagner mercenary in Libya that contained information about the group’s activities in that country. Libyan intelligence services also provided the British outlet with a “shopping list” that included a wide variety of high-tech, Russian-made weapons and equipment used by the soldiers for hire.
The BBC interviewed witnesses who alleged that Wagner mercenaries had killed villagers and executed soldiers who had surrendered.
This is not the first time Wagner mercenaries have been accused of war crimes. In late June, the United Nations released a report on crimes allegedly committed by Wagner mercenaries working with the armed forces of the Central African Republic.
The Kremlin has categorically denied the war crimes accusations.
In October 2020, negotiators in Geneva brokered a ceasefire agreement to end fighting between the Government of National Accord and Haftar’s opposition movement. Under this agreement, foreign forces backing both sides were to be removed.
Earlier this year, however, there were signs that Russia’s mercenaries might stay. CNN reported in January that Wagner forces had built a large trench, spanning nearly 70 kilometers, from the town of Sirte south to the Al Jufra airbase. The trench appeared to be part of a system of defensive fortifications and could be seen in satellite photos.
In late April, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Laboratory found open-source evidence suggesting that Wagner mercenaries, who according to the ceasefire deal were supposed to leave Libya within 90 days after January 1, 2021, remained in Libya past that deadline. Moreover, the lab claimed it had seen evidence that additional Wagner mercenaries may have been sent to Libya in early February.
Citing anonymous “sources on the ground,” the Turkish Daily Sabah claimed in April that 300 additional Russian mercenaries would be sent to Libya.
On July 24, the U.S. Department of Defense published a report claiming that Wagner mercenaries were still active in Libya. The report included satellite imagery showing Russian military equipment on airfields.