The US military believes an unarmed American drone reported lost near Tripoli was shot down by Russian air defence and is demanding return of the aircraft’s wreckage, US Africa Command said.
Such a shoot down would underscore Moscow’s increasingly muscular role in the energy-rich nation, where Russian mercenaries are reportedly intervening on behalf of east Libya-based commander Khalifa Haftar in Libya’s civil war.
Haftar sought to take Tripoli, now held by Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
US Army General Stephen Townsend, who leads Africa Command, believed operators of the air defence at the time “didn’t know it was a US remotely piloted aircraft when they fired on it.”
“They certainly know who it belongs to now and are refusing to return it. They say they don’t know where it is but I am not buying it,” Townsend said in a statement.
The US assessment, not previously disclosed, concludes either Russian private military contractors or Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army were operating air defence at the time the drone was reported lost on November 21, said Africa Command spokesman Colonel Christopher Karns.
He said the United States believed the air defence operators fired on the aircraft “mistaking it for an opposition” drone.
An official in Libya’s GNA told Reuters Russian mercenaries appeared to be responsible.
Russian authorities deny using military contractors in any foreign military theatre and say Russian civilians fighting abroad are volunteers. The LNA denies foreign backing.
A current and former Russian contractor told Reuters since September the LNA had ground support from private military contractors from a Russian group.
Military officials linked to the GNA and Western diplomats confirmed the presence of Russian contractors in Libya.
TIPPING THE BALANCE
Haftar, who claims to be fighting to rid Tripoli of Islamist-leaning armed groups, received support from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, and recently from Russian mercenaries, according to diplomats and Tripoli officials.
Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Russians’ contributions of advanced capabilities — from snipers to precision weaponry — could be felt on the battlefield, boosting the morale of Haftar forces.
“It’s giving Haftar al technological edge,” said Wehrey, who recently returned from Libya.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, in an interview with Reuters, declined to comment on the drone saying he believed Russia was trying to “put their finger on the scale” in Libya’s civil war to create a situation advantageous to Moscow.
Townsend voiced concern about Russia’s growing role in Libya, including how it would affect “territorial sovereignty and AFRICOM’s counter-terrorism mission.”
“This highlights the malign influence of Russian mercenaries acting to influence the outcome of the civil war in Libya, who are responsible for the recent sharp increase in fighting, casualties and destruction around Tripoli,” Townsend said.
Mohammed Ali Abdallah, advisor for US affairs in Libya’s GNA, said the US drone came down near the pro-LNA stronghold Tarhuna, south-east of Tripoli.
More than 1 400 Russian mercenaries were deployed with the LNA, he said.
“Only the Russians have that ability – and they were operating where it happened,” Abdallah said, in written comments sent to Reuters.
“It’s our understanding Haftar was asked by his Russian partners to claim responsibility, despite not having the capability or equipment to shoot down a US drone.”