A force of several dozen armed private security contractors from Russia operated until last month in a part of Libya under control of regional leader Khalifa Haftar, the head of the firm that hired the contractors told Reuters.
It is the clearest signal to date that Moscow is prepared to back up its public diplomatic support for Haftar — even at the risk of alarming Western governments already irked at Russia’s intervention in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad.
Haftar is opposed to a UN-backed government Western states see as the best chance of restoring stability in Libya. But some Russian policymakers see the Libyan as a strongman who can end six years of anarchy following the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi.
The presence of military contractors was, according to the head of the firm, a commercial arrangement. It is unlikely to have been possible without Moscow’s approval, according to people who work in the industry in Russia.
Oleg Krinitsyn, owner of private Russian firm RSB-group, said he sent contractors to eastern Libya last year and they were pulled out in February having completed their mission.
In an interview with Reuters, he said their task was to remove mines from an industrial facility near Benghazi, which Haftar’s forces liberated from Islamist rebels.
He declined to say who hired his firm, where they were operating or what the industrial facility was. He did not say if the operation had been approved by the UN-backed government, which most states view as the sovereign ruler of Libya.
Asked whether the mission had official blessing from Moscow, Krinitsyn said his firm did not work with the Russian defence ministry, but “consulted” with the Russian foreign ministry.
The contractors did not take part in combat, Krinitsyn said, but they were armed with weapons they obtained in Libya. He declined to specify what type of weapons. A UN arms embargo prohibits the import of weapons to Libya unless under control of the UN-backed government.
Krinitsyn said his contractors were ready to strike back if attacked.
“If we’re under assault we enter the battle, of course, to protect our lives and the lives of our clients,” Krinitsyn said. “According to military science, a counter-attack must follow an attack. That means we would have to destroy the enemy.”
Military and government officials in eastern Libya said they were not aware of the contractors, while Haftar did not respond to a request for comment.
Officials in Western Libya, where the UN-backed government is based, were not immediately available for comment. The Russian foreign ministry said it was working on a response to Reuters questions bit had not commented by Friday.
Underscoring Libya’s volatility, Haftar’s forces have been fighting to regain control over the Mediterranean oil terminals of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, which a rival faction seized earlier this month.
Russia has a record of using private military contractors as an extension of its own military.
In Syria, military contractors have been widely used in combat roles in conjunction with Russian regular forces and their Syrian allies, according to multiple accounts given to Reuters by people involved in operations. Moscow has not acknowledged using private contractors in Syria.
Russian security companies do not reveal the background of people they hire but the contractors usually are Special Forces veterans.
Krinitsyn, owner of the company which hired the contractors for Libya, was an officer in the Russian border guard service based in Tajikistan, on the border with Afghanistan, where he said he gained battlefield experience.
Krinitsyn said some of the contractors he hired for Libya had previously worked in Syria, though not in combat roles.
He declined to say how many contractors were involved in the mission in Libya, citing commercial secrecy. However, he said in general, a demining operation of this type would require around 50 mine clearance experts and around the same number for their security detail.
Haftar has been seeking outside help to consolidate control over parts of Libya. Russia has shown a willingness to engage with him contrasting with the more cautious approach of Western governments.
Haftar visited Moscow in November and met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In December, Haftar went on board a Russian aircraft carrier off the Libyan coast and spoke with the Russian defence minister via videolink. In recent weeks, Russia has taken in a hundred of Haftar’s wounded fighters for medical treatment.
Moscow also received Haftar’s rival, Fayez Serraj, head of the UN-backed government, for talks this month.
President Vladimir Putin, confident from the Russian military intervention in Syria, is anxious to restore stability in Libya. But foreign diplomats familiar with Russian thinking say there is no consensus yet on how to achieve that.
They say the foreign ministry wants Haftar to join forces with the UN-backed government. But diplomats say there is a more hawkish camp, centred on the Russian defence ministry and some people in the Kremlin, which favours backing Haftar to establish control over the whole of Libya.
Krinitsyn, the contractors’ boss, said while in Libya his employees had run into a group of local militants. He said the militants were initially hostile, but became friendly when they realised the outsiders were Russians.
“It was an uncomfortable situation but the image created by Putin in Syria played a positive role. We realized Russia is welcomed in Libya more than other countries are,” he said.