TANZANIA, Tanzania — U.N. experts say a private Russian security company has provided between 800 and 1,200 mercenaries to support the offensive by Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter, whose forces have been trying to take the capital, Tripoli, for over a year.
The panel of experts monitoring sanctions against Libya said in a report obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press that mercenaries from the Wagner Group are engaged in specialized military activities including calling in artillery and air strikes, providing electronic countermeasures expertise and deploying as sniper teams.
“Their deployment has acted as an effective force multiplier” for Hifter’s forces, the panel said.
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups.
Hifter’s offensive is supported by France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries. The U.N.-supported government in Tripoli is backed by Turkey, which deployed troops and mercenaries to help defend the capital in January, as well as by Italy and Qatar.
Mercenaries, mainly from the Syria battlefield, are now fighting on both sides and complicating the already complex proxy war.
U.S. and Libyan officials have accused Russia of deploying fighters from the Wagner Group in key battleground areas in Libya. Moscow has repeatedly denied playing any role in Libya’s fighting.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, who reportedly has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is allegedly tied to the Wagner Group.
The panel said the first reports of Syrian foreign fighters being recruited by a Russian company to fight in Libya in support of Hifter emerged Jan. 7, with more details on Feb. 14 that fighters were being recruited from the town of Douma in the Damascus suburbs for $800 a month.
On March 5, the panel said, open sources reported that fighters were being recruited by Wagner through the Syrian National Youth Party in Sweida, a mountainous area that is a centre for the Druze religious minority, for salaries between $1,000 and $1,500 monthly.
“It is estimated from ground sources that the number of Syrian foreign fighters supporting Hifter’s operations is less than 2,000,” the report said.
The experts said open sources put the number of Syrian fighters in Libya to be nearer 5,000, but they said that “this almost certainly includes those fighters recruited by Turkey” to support the government in Tripoli.
The panel said it has identified the presence of mercenaries from Wagner in Libya since October 2018, “providing technical support for the repair of military vehicles, participating in combat operations and engaging in influence operations.”
The panel said it was provided with details of 122 Wagner operatives who are “highly probably operational” in Libya, including 39 from its specialist sniper group and 83 from its 1st Attack and Reconnaissance Company or other combat units.
The panel said mercenaries from the Russian company Rossiskie System Bezopasnosti Group have also been identified as providing maintenance and repair support for military aircraft.
The experts said they continue to investigate reports that mercenaries from Russian-based Moran Security Group and Schit Security Group deployed to Benghazi on Jan. 6.
Edith M. Lederer, The Associated Press