A top UN official has warned of the huge risk of a miscalculation triggering direct confrontation between rival foreign powers in Libya as weapons and mercenaries continue to pour into the north African state.
Stephanie Williams, acting UN envoy to Libya, told the Financial Times that an “alphabet soup” of foreign states were violating an international arms embargo as forces mobilised around the strategic city of Sirte. The Mediterranean port is the latest frontline in a 15-month civil conflict between a UN-backed government in Tripoli and fighters loyal to renegade general Khalifa Haftar.
“There has been no effort to stop the influx of mercenaries or weapons, so what’s clear is that there’s complete international impunity, which is matched by impunity on the ground,” Ms Williams said. “The risk of this turning into a pure proxy war is very serious indeed. The overall picture is one of continuing foreign intervention.”
The Libyan conflict has morphed into a multi-layered conflict with Turkey this year sending arms, troops and Syrian militias to back the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), while Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates have long backed Gen Haftar, whose forces control Sirte and eastern Libya.
Fears that the rival foreign powers could become embroiled in a direct confrontation have heightened in recent months as Turkish-backed forces loyal to the GNA have advanced eastward after delivering a string of defeats to Gen Haftar’s fighters.
Russia responded by deploying at least 14 MiG-29s and Su-24s fighter jets to Jufra in central Libya, via Syria, while Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has described Sirte as a “red line” and threatened to send troops into Libya. Egypt’s parliament has authorised the deployment of Egyptian soldiers across the border.
Control of Sirte, former dictator Muammer Gaddafi’s home city, is considered vital as it is the gateway to the east, which is home to Libya’s main oil facilities.
On Friday, the US military released satellite imagery taken this month which it said showed Russian mercenaries belonging to the Wagner Group, a private security company often linked to the Kremlin, and equipment on the front lines of Sirte. The US military estimates that about 2,000 Wagner forces are fighting alongside Gen Haftar’s forces and said Russian military aircraft continue to supply them.
It also said equipment operated by the Russian mercenaries included air defence systems and mine-resistant armoured vehicles.
“The type and volume of equipment demonstrates an intent toward sustained offensive combat action capabilities, not humanitarian relief, and indicates the Russian ministry of defence is supporting these operations,” said Maj Gen Bradford Gering, director of operations at the US’s Africom command. Syrian and Sudanese mercenaries are also fighting alongside Gen Haftar’s forces.
The UN has accused all sides in the conflict, including Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, of violating an arms embargo on Libya. The war erupted in April last year after Gen Haftar launched an offensive on Tripoli to topple the GNA. After breaking Gen Haftar’s year-long siege on the capital, GNA forces have moved to within about 50km of Sirte.
Ms Williams said the risk of a miscalculation around Sirte was “huge — you never know what could trigger a wider conflagration”.
The UN is brokering talks between officials from the rival Libyan factions and Ms Williams said they had reached consensus on key issues that would be the foundation of any ceasefire agreement. These include counter-terrorism co-operation, withdrawal of foreign mercenaries and that the UN should monitor a ceasefire mechanism.
The appetite among Libyan factions for a political process to end the conflict had increased, Ms Williams said, but there was no agreement on how to demobilise Sirte, which is home to about 125,000 people.
Foreign intervention was complicating the peace efforts, she added. “The Libyans are increasingly losing their voice in all of this . . . decisions are being taken on their behalf in foreign capitals,” she said.
“A compromise is within reach but we need support and the Libyans need support. It’s not practical for any one side or their backers to take a zero-sum approach.”