US officials are also concerned about the long-term goals of the Kremlin’s ally in the war-torn country. An intelligence official said the excavation was a sign that Wagner, who the official said had the largest global presence in Libya, was “preparing for long distances.”
The excavation, which stretches tens of kilometers south of the populated coastal areas around Sirte to the Wagner-controlled fortress of al-Jufra, can be seen in satellite images and is supported by a series of complex fortifications.
CNN contacted the Russian government for comment and received no response.
The excavation and fortifications appear to be designed to prevent or stop a ground attack on LNA-controlled areas to the east, passing through Libya’s populated coastal areas, which have seen the most clashes since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in 2011.
GNA has published photos of excavators and trucks creating the ditch and berm that runs past it, and said the work will appear as early as this month.
The trench, another US intelligence official said, was another reason “we see no intention or movement from either Turkish or Russian forces to adhere to the UN-brokered agreement. This has the potential to disrupt the already fragile peace process and ceasefire.” be a really difficult year ahead. “
Open source monitoring says it has drawn a series of more than 30 defensive positions dug into the desert and slopes that stretch for about 70 kilometers.
Maxar’s satellite imagery appears to show both the excavation extending along the main road and the fortifications excavated, also by Wagner’s mercenaries and their contractors.
The images show a build-up of defenses around Jufra Air Base, as well as Brak Airport further south, where obvious radar protections have been installed and strengthened.
Salaheddin Al-Namrush, GNA’s defense minister, told CNN: “I don’t think anyone who is digging a trench today and making these reinforcements is leaving any time soon.”
Claudia Gadzini of the International Crisis Group told CNN that the excavation was “really worrying” and that talks about it “have been spreading among diplomats over the past few weeks. He goes on to suggest that Moscow wants to strengthen its presence in Libya.”
Analysts say the Kremlin wants to increase its military presence and influence in the Mediterranean, along southern NATO, with the added bonus of participating in and profiting from Libya’s oil industry.
Gazini added that there have been repeated reports that both countries continue to maintain and build a presence of foreign mercenaries, and GNA has also been accused of increasing supplies of military equipment under a public deal with Turkey to support its armed forces.
A U.S. intelligence official said the number of mercenaries from both the GNA and the LNA was relatively constant: About 10,000 are currently in Libya, according to a September AFRICOM report.
The Libyan deployment of about 2,000 foreign Wagner mercenaries – believed to be mostly Russian or former Soviet citizens – is the largest private military company in the world, the US spokesman said.
An LNA spokesman, Major General Khaled al-Mahjoub, confirmed the trenches to CNN, but described them as “temporary” sand barriers and trenches, in an “open area … for defense and combat.” He denied the presence of 2,000 Wagner mercenaries and said there were consultants “announced long ago”.
But a confidential UN report received by CNN in June described Wagner’s fighters as “an effective multiplier of forces.”
Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there were no Russians in Libya, but if there were, they did not represent Russia. Russia has always denied using mercenaries to fight for it.
Despite the arms embargo, UN inspectors registered dozens of Russian flights to Libya in 2020.
The US command in Africa has publicly called on Russia to expand, saying it is similar to action in Syria.
In June, the head of the defense committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, Viktor Bondarev, said the US claims were “nonsense” and suggested that they were old Soviet planes from elsewhere in Africa.
The Western diplomat, who knows the arms movement in Libya, said Russian flights in the country had fallen from a peak of 93 in August to just over a dozen a month in late 2020. “They just keep on the ground,” he said, adding. that Turkey flies with a similar number.
The Turkish military is open to its desire for a permanent presence, posting images of its military giving GNA “Basic Defense Training” in the past week.
“This is a comprehensive effort,” he said. “They build facilities, attract personnel and equipment. They have missile batteries for air defense HAWK, 3D [KALAKAN] radar. ”
Satellite images of the port of Al-Homs show minor modifications that suggest it could be prepared for a longer-term Turkish naval presence, which al-Namrush of the GNA has denied.
A senior Turkish security official told CNN that “they continue to offer military training, cooperation and advice … according to the needs and demands of the GNA.”
Thousands of Syrian mercenaries, in which Turkey flew and was supported in Libya, were also used elsewhere, the US intelligence official revealed. During Turkey’s support for the Azerbaijani government during their recent conflict with Armenia, planes have flown hundreds of Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan to help Turkey’s ally in its war with Armenia, the US envoy said.
“There seems to have been some movement of some of the Syrian mercenaries towards the conflict in [Nagorno Karabakh]. Smaller numbers, in the bottom hundreds, “the employee added.
Wagner’s Russian-backed forces aim to give Moscow influence but not responsibility, analysts say. Jalel Harchawi, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, said Wagner’s mercenaries were “by definition disposable” and “a force that does not exist, according to the official version of the Russian state.” means that it is not scary, scary and quite effective “, but that it provides the greatest flexibility for the Kremlin.
Gadzini added: “Russia’s policy in Libya is opaque – what Russia wants to do. From evidence on the ground, it sounds as if they want to consolidate their influence or want to find a way out.”
However, the American official added that the Russian accumulation currently represents significant personnel and modern equipment, but one that presents ethical concerns. “Fourth-generation Panzer fighters and missile systems are operated by Wagner’s less capable, poorly trained mercenaries,” the official said.
“Libya has complex challenges, including al Qaeda and ISIL, and mercenaries with their poor level of training, experience and lack of respect for human rights and international law make these weapons systems in these hands the most worrying.”
While Wagner’s presence and excavation appear to favor the LNA’s head, General Haftar, Russia’s presence appears to be on Moscow’s agenda rather than Haftar’s support, analysts say.
The Western diplomat said Haftar needed to continue the conflict in Libya to keep it relevant. “It becomes irrelevant overnight if the conflict ends,” the diplomat said. “And if it doesn’t end on his terms, he becomes vulnerable to war crimes charges, etc.”