Pentagon accuses Moscow of sending fighter jets to back Libyan warlord

The aircraft, the statement said, are “likely to provide close air support and offensive fires” for Russian mercenaries working for the Wagner Group, a shadowy private army that experts have linked to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Since September, hundreds of Russian mercenaries have fought on Tripoli’s front lines alongside Hifter’s forces, who seek to topple the capital’s U.N.-backed government. But virtually all of the mercenaries left Tripoli over the weekend after Hifter’s forces suffered a series of stunning military reversals in western Libya, prompting the dispatch of the fighter jets.

“Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya,” said U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, in the statement. “Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner.”

He added: “For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict. Well, there is no denying it now.”

In November, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to answer questions sent by The Post about the mercenaries, replying that “the Kremlin does not have this information.” A spokesman for Prigozhin said the businessman “has nothing to do with the so-called ‘Wagner’ private military company” and declined to comment further.

The U.S. Africa Command said that “Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions.” It added that Moscow’s military actions have prolonged Libya’s war and worsened the number of casualties and human suffering.

Andrei Krasov, deputy head of the defense committee of the lower house of Russia’s parliament, denied that Russia has deployed military planes to Libya.

“Another U.S.-style horror story. That’s a fake and misinformation presented in the spirit of the previous U.S. administration,” Krasov told the Interfax news agency. “Once again, the U.S. is trying to play the Russia card.”

“The Russian stance is well known: We want the bloodshed to stop in Libya, and we call on all conflicting parties not to use force, but to begin negotiations,” he added.

Townsend described the fighter jets as “fourth generation” aircraft that the Wagner mercenaries and the Libyan National Army, as Hifter’s forces call themselves, are not trained to fly.

“Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support — support they are getting from Russia,” said Townsend. “The world heard Mr. [Hifter] declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign. That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans.”

Robyn Dixon in Moscow contributed to this report.

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