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US secretly moved Russia air defence system from Libya, report reveals

January 28, 2021 at 4:34 pm

Air missile systems pictured at a military base in Syria, on 26 September 2019. [MAXIME POPOV/AFP/Getty Images]

The United States’ military has been revealed to have transported a captured Russian air defence missile system from Libya to Germany, in covert efforts to gather intelligence from the system’s infrastructure.

The truck-mounted Pantsir S-1 missile battery, which can engage multiple targets from low altitudes with a range of around 20 miles, was transported to the US air force’s Ramstein base in south-west Germany in June last year due to fears that it could end up in the hands of militias or smugglers in the war-torn country.

The air defence system, owned by the United Arab Emirates which gave it to the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, was recovered from the Watiya airbase in May last year after Libyan government forces captured it. Government fighters then sent the Pantsir to the town of Zawiya where a Daesh-affiliated militia commander named Mohamad Bahroun seized it.

The Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha and his forces, however, pressured Bahroun to release the missile system, which was then taken to a base and then Zuwara airport where the US air force’s C-17 Globemaster cargo plane collected it.

According to the British newspaper the Times, the US aimed to acquire the captured missile defence system in order to gather intelligence on it and to study its mechanisms and database. This was especially in retaliation for the shooting down of a US reaper drone over Libya in November 2019, which was allegedly carried out by a Pantsir system.

READ: Can the EU ever have boots on the ground in Libya?

A Russian official has reportedly admitted that his country knew that the US had transported the missile system, but dismissed notions that any important intelligence could be collected from it. That is because export versions such as the one owned by the UAE are allegedly stripped of a confidential identification database to hide transponder codes for all jets in the Russian air force.

The US’ mission to transport the system further reveals the extent to which Washington and Moscow operate against each other in the embattled north African country. Last year in particular witnessed the US exposing Russia’s interference in Libya, when the US’ Africa Command openly stated that Russia had deployed fighter jets to the country in support of Haftar.

Then in December, US intelligence released a report indicating the UAE’s involvement in funding and deploying Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group to Libya, acknowledging the Gulf country’s role in the conflict and war crimes.

Speaking to the Times, Libya researcher Wolfram Lacher from the German think tank SWP said: “It’s remarkable that a state which is a major importer of US weapons would then hand a sophisticated weapons system to a warlord who handles it so recklessly that it then falls into the hands of a potentially dangerous militia leaders on the other side.”

READ: Is the US using its NATO ally Turkey to counter Russia in Libya?