Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the self-proclaimed commander of the Libyan National Army, based in eastern Libya, told his forces on April 8 to be ready for "conducting any mission at any time,” adding that their “battle won’t end” until “foreign fighters” are forced out of Libya.
"The LNA forces are the guarantee of Libya's political, economic and social stability" against “violent acts … ending the presence of foreign fighters and establishing security for the residents," Middle East Monitor quoted Haftar as saying in the speech.
The claim is highly misleading, given that Haftar’s rebellion against Libya’s U.N.-recognized unity government relies on paramilitary troops from Russia’s Wagner Group. The deception is further amplified by war crimes accusations against Haftar and his fighters.
The Wagner paramilitary forces are notorious for violent acts in Syria, Venezuela and Africa. In three separate lawsuits filed in U.S. courts, Libyan families accused Haftar and his forces of violating their rights and disregarding the safety of civilians.
“In the complaint, plaintiffs detailed how Haftar’s forces, during their assault on Ganfouda in 2016-2017, repeatedly struck their block by shelling and air strikes, preventing their safe evacuation,” Reuters reported in September 2020 on the most recent of the three complaints. (Haftar himself is a U.S. citizen.)
A separate lawsuit, with the International Criminal Court in The Hague in January 2019, accused Haftar and his LNA forces of having “tortured and murdered civilians” and “mutilating” their corpses during the battle for the eastern city of Derna. Human Rights Solidarity, a Geneva-based group formed by Libyan expatriates, “reached this conclusion after studying multiple videos and photos taken in Derna and posted online, which purport to show Gen. Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) shooting unarmed civilians, stringing up mutilated bodies and indiscriminately shelling residential areas,” The Independent reported at the time.
In July 2020, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said it had “clear evidence that Russian employed, state-sponsored Wagner Group laid landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in and around Tripoli, further violating the United Nations arms embargo and endangering the lives of innocent Libyans.”
“The Russian-state sponsored Wagner Group is demonstrating a total disregard for the safety and security of Libyans,” said U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Bradford Gering, director of AFRICOM operations. “The Wagner Group’s irresponsible tactics are prolonging conflict and are responsible for the needless suffering and the deaths of innocent civilians. Russia has the power to stop them, just not the will.”
Rather than protect Libya’s “economic stability,” Haftar’s forces have blocked Libyan oil exports, the country’s principal industry. In July 2020, Haftar’s rump parliament in eastern Libya called on Egypt to intervene in Libya militarily.
Haftar’s speech to his forces came just shy of six months after he agreed to a “permanent ceasefire” deal with the Tripoli government under a United Nations-backed peace plan. According to the agreement, reached in Geneva last October, all mercenaries and foreign fighters were supposed to leave Libya within three months.
In late March, Libya’s unity government called for the “immediate withdrawal” of foreign mercenaries. Instead, more Wagner fighters are reportedly coming to Haftar’s aid, the Daily Sabah reported. Besides Russia, Haftar has received support from France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which recently switched its support to back the unity government in Tripoli.
The U.N. estimates as many as 20,000 foreign fighters are in Libya, most of them from Syria. An estimated 2,000 Wagner troops are present.
Intelligence reports and satellite imagery released last week suggest that the Russian mercenaries have been strengthening their firepower in Libya. Wagner’s equipment at the Al Khadim airbase “included Il-76 transport aircraft, Su-24 Fencer fighter bombers, Pantsir (SA-22) air defense missile combat vehicles, as well as TIGR heavy duty trucks, and mine-resistant armored vehicles,” The Telegraph reported.
Mixing military and non-military assets is “typical” of Russia “operating within the grey zone,” U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said.
Libya struggled to form a unified government after the ouster and death of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank. The conflict has killed thousands of people, and more than 300,000 have fled the country or been displaced inside Libya, CFR says.
According to The Associated Press, the United Nations recently accused “several foreign governments of turning the oil-rich country into a stage to play out rivalries and ignoring U.N. sanctions and a decade-long U.N. arms embargo.”
Turkey and Qatar back the forces loyal to the U.N.-supported administration in Tripoli, to the west, while the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Egypt have supported Khalifa Haftar, the military commander controlling eastern and southern parts of Libya, the U.N. report said.