Reports have emerged highlighting several dozen armed private security contractors from Russia having operated in a part of Libya under the control of regional army leader Khalifa Haftar.
The reports were confirmed by the head of the firm that hired the contractors who spoke to Reuters. The reports are the latest sign of Moscow’s public diplomatic support for Haftar.
Military strongmen Haftar is opposed to the UN-backed government which Western states see as the best chance of restoring stability in Libya.
However some Russian policymakers see the Libyan strongman as Libya’s best choice in ending the six years of lawless chaos that followed the ousting of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi.
According to the head of the firm, the presence of the military contractors was purely a commercial arrangement which was unlikely to have been allowed to operate in the North African country without prior approval from Moscow.
One of the owners of the Russian firms, Oleg Krinitsyn, said he sent the contractors to eastern Libya last year and were removed once their mission was completed.
The task of the contractors was to remove mines from an industrial facility near the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, an area Haftar’s forces liberated from Daesh last year.
When asked whether the mission had official blessing from Moscow, Krinitsyn told Reuters his firm did not work with the Russian Defence Ministry, but was “consulting” with the Russian Foreign Ministry.
If we’re under assault we enter the battle, of course, to protect our lives and the lives of our clients,
Krinitsyn said his contractors were ready to strike back in case of an attack.
The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement sent to Reuters that it had no information on the presence of the contractors in Libya and did not know Krinitsyn.
Support in the battle
Krinitsyn said some of the contractors he hired for Libya had previously worked in Syria, though not in combat roles and declined to disclose how many contractors were involved in the mission in Libya, citing commercial secrecy.
Haftar has been seeking military support to help consolidate his control over parts of Libya which Russia has been willing to engage with as it seeks to broaden its influence in the region.
The general’s close colleague and advisor, Abdelbasset Al-Badri, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Moscow today to further press for support in the battle against the Benghazi Defence Brigades.
According to the Russian foreign ministry: “Both sides exchanged detailed views on of the developments in Libya.”
It also said that Bogdanov and Badri “agreed on the importance to arrange a collective dialogue to be participated by representatives from all political and tribal groups.”