Russian fighters flown out of western Libya as Turkish-backed forces press advantage

Russian fighters in Libya have been flown away from the front lines of the civil war near Tripoli, according to the mayor of a town south of the capital.

The fighters from the Russian private security contractor Wagner retreated with their heavy equipment and flew out of the airport in Bani Walid, a town 150 km south of Tripoli, the town’s mayor Salem Alaywan told Reuters.

“They (the Russians) were flown in three military planes to Jufra and their military vehicles were driven there,” Alaywan said, referring to a central district that is a stronghold of General Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA).

The mayor said some 1,500 Russian and Syrian mercenaries were flown out after withdrawing from areas to the south of Tripoli, Bloomberg reported.

The withdrawal of the fighters has added to a growing list of problems for the LNA, which has been rapidly losing ground in recent weeks after launching an offensive against Tripoli in April 2019.

Haftar’s forces had driven the United Nations-recognised Tripoli government back to the capital in an onslaught that was backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and, according to Western officials, some 1,400 fighters from the Kremlin-linked Wagner.

Turkey intervened by sending the Government of National Accord (GNA) vital military hardware including drones, halting the attack. In November, the Turkish government ramped up its support by signing a military memorandum with the GNA that allowed the deployment of Turkish troops in Libya.

Since November, Turkey has sent its own soldiers as advisers and thousands of fighters from allied Syrian militias to fight against the LNA, press reports say. That has translated in recent weeks to a series of important victories for the GNA, which has recaptured vital areas including the key strategic airbase at Watiya, southwest of the capital.

The LNA’s failure, Jerusalem Post analyst Seth J. Frantzmann said, has put a fresh dent in Russia’s regional ambitions, which have faced recent setbacks in Libya and Syria after years of growing influence in the Middle East and North Africa.

Videos uploaded to social media showed Turkish drones destroying the LNA’s Russian-built Pantsir air defence systems in a new “humiliation” after Turkish strikes took out Pantsirs belonging to the Syrian government in March, Frantzmann said.

With its Libyan allies in the ascendancy, Turkey has continued to pile in reinforcements to press the advantage, according to press reports over the weekend.

Turkish Air Force jets increased their activity around Libya, including two heavy transport aircraft that flew from Istanbul to Tripoli, the Jerusalem Post reported on Sunday, citing open-source analysis.

Turkey’s relations with Libya are vital for an expansive eastern Mediterranean policy that claims jurisdiction over a large part of the sea. The military memorandum signed in November accompanied a marine borders deal that sees Turkey and Libya as maritime neighbours, ignoring the claims of Greece and Cyprus.