Exclusive: U.S. says drone shot down by Russian air defenses near Libyan
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[December 07, 2019]
By Phil Stewart and Aidan Lewis
(Reuters) - The U.S. military believes that
an unarmed American drone reported lost near Libya's capital last month
was in fact shot down by Russian air defenses and it is demanding the
return of the aircraft's wreckage, U.S. Africa Command says.
Such a shootdown would underscore Moscow's increasingly muscular role in
the energy-rich nation, where Russian mercenaries are reportedly
intervening on behalf of east Libya-based commander Khalifa Haftar in
Libya's civil war.
Haftar has sought to take the capital Tripoli, now held by Libya's
internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, who leads Africa command, said he
believed the operators of the air defenses at the time "didn't know it
was a U.S. remotely piloted aircraft when they fired on it."
"But they certainly know who it belongs to now and they are refusing to
return it. They say they don't know where it is but I am not buying it,"
Townsend told Reuters in a statement, without elaborating.
The U.S. assessment, which has not been previously disclosed, concludes
that either Russian private military contractors or Haftar's so-called
Libyan National Army were operating the air defenses at the time the
drone was reported lost on Nov. 21, said Africa Command spokesman Air
Force Colonel Christopher Karns.
Karns said the United States believed the air defense operators fired on
the U.S. aircraft after "mistaking it for an opposition" drone.
An official in Libya's internationally recognized Government of National
Accord (GNA) told Reuters that Russian mercenaries appeared to be
Russian authorities deny using military contractors in any foreign
military theater and say any Russian civilians who may be fighting
abroad are volunteers. The LNA denies it has foreign backing.
One current and one former Russian contractor told Reuters that since
September the LNA had received ground support from several hundred
private military contractors from a Russian group.
Military officials linked to the GNA and Western diplomats have also
confirmed the presence of Russian contractors in Libya.
TIPPING THE BALANCE
Haftar, who claims to be fighting to rid Tripoli of Islamist-leaning
armed groups, has received support from the United Arab Emirates and
Egypt, and, most recently, from Russian mercenaries, according to
diplomats and Tripoli officials
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Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, said the Russians' contributions
of advanced capabilities -- everything from snipers to precision
weaponry -- could be felt on the battlefield, boosting the morale of
"It's giving Haftar a real technological edge," said Wehrey, who
recently returned from Libya.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in an interview with Reuters
earlier this week, declined to comment directly on the drone but
said he believed Russia was trying to "put their finger on the
scale" in Libya's civil war to create a situation that was
advantageous to Moscow.
Townsend voiced deep concern about Russia's growing role in the
country, including how it would affect Libya's "territorial
sovereignty and AFRICOM's counter-terrorism mission."
"This highlights the malign influence of Russian mercenaries acting
to influence the outcome of the civil war in Libya, and who are
directly responsible for the recent and sharp increase in fighting,
casualties and destruction around Tripoli," Townsend said.
Mohammed Ali Abdallah, advisor for U.S. affairs in Libya's GNA, said
the U.S. drone had come down near the pro-LNA stronghold of Tarhuna,
65km (40 miles) south-east of Tripoli.
More than 1,400 Russian mercenaries were deployed with the LNA, he
"Only the Russians have that ability - and they were operating where
it happened," Abdallah said, in written comments sent to Reuters.
"It's our understanding that Haftar was asked by his Russian
partners to claim responsibility, despite not having the capability
or equipment to shoot down a US drone."
More than 200 civilians have been killed and more than 128,000
displaced in the fighting since April, according to U.N. figures.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Aidan Lewis; additional reporting by
Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi; Editing by Michael Perry)
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