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Turkey and US share Russian defence system captured in Libya

Russian Ilyushin Il-76, carrying the first batch of equipment of S-400 missile defense system, arrives at Murted Air Base in Ankara, Turkey on 12 July, 2019 as S-400 hardware deployment started [Turkey’s National Defense Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency]
Russia's S-400 missile defence system being delivered in Ankara, Turkey on 12 July 2019 [Turkey’s National Defense Ministry/Anadolu Agency]

A captured Russian-built missile defence system which was reported last month to have been taken by the US military is now said to have been shared between the US and Turkey, according to Libyan officials.

In a report last month by the Times in London, the truck-mounted Pantsir S-1 missile battery – made by Russia and given to the UAE, which then gave it to Khalifa Haftar's forces in eastern Libya – was captured by militants affiliated to the Libyan government when they captured Al-Watiya Air Base in May last year.

It was then recovered from a Daesh-affiliated militia commander after he seized it briefly, before reportedly being collected by a US Air Force cargo plane and sent to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany as part of a covert operation.

The Paris-based Africa Report, however, yesterday cited anonymous Libyan officials who said that instead of being sent to Germany under US control, the Pantsir system was actually sent to the Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli where it was seized by Turkish forces.

Washington and Ankara then argued over who should keep the system, which had been captured intact rather than destroyed by Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones like many other Pantsir batteries in Libya. While the US said that it should extract the system so as not to let it fall into the hands of extremists, Turkey insisted that it should have custody of it in order to study it in detail.

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

Both NATO members are thought to have had the same aim of studying the Russian Pantsir system and hacking into its technology. In the end, they agreed to study the system jointly, with the US using its cargo plane to deliver it to Turkey last June where both sides could work on it together, according to the officials cited by Africa Report.

That agreement was a relief for senior figures in the Libyan government such as Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha. One official said that they "felt like children in a divorce" as they were dragged into the dispute.

Last month, a Russian official said that it was useless to study the system as the captured Pantsir was one of many export versions that are stripped of a confidential identification database to hide transponder codes for all jets in the Russian air force.

The saga of the captured Pantsir system and the Turkey-US deal is said to be part of the effort to repairs relations between the NATO partners, which have been strained over the past few years due to Ankara's purchase of a Russian S-400 air defence system. There have been no signs, however, that relations have improved since last year.

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