By Roland Oliphant
Russia has deployed troops to Egypt amid a strengthening of ties between Moscow and General Khalifa Haftar, the warlord who controls much of the eastern part of Libya, a US general said on Friday.
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, said the link between Russia and General Haftar, the head of a group called the Libyan National Army, is “undeniable.”
“They are on the ground. They are trying to influence the action. We watch what they do with great concern,” he told reporters in the Pentagon on Friday.
Asked to clarify whether he meant in Libya, he said: “I would just say there are Russians on the ground in the area.”
US Africacom clarified on Twitter: “we are aware of Russian military in the north Africa region, specifically Egypt.”
The Russian ministry of defence was not immediately available for comment on Friday evening.
Gen Waldhauser’s comments follow reports earlier this month that Russian special forces had been deployed to western Egypt, possibly in order to conduct operations in Libya.
Last year a spokesman for Gen Haftar told Egyptian newspapers that Russian military technicians were helping service and restore heavy weaponry including anti-aircraft and naval systems.
Gen Haftar visited Moscow at least twice last year to lobby for support and was hosted on board the Admiral Kuzentsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, as it returned from a mission off Syria in January.
At a meeting with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, in November he called the relationship with Russia “crucial.”
“We hope we will eliminate terrorism with your help in the nearest future,” he said at the time.
However, Russia has publicly ruled out sending weaponry to the general as long as a UN arms embargo remains in force.
The Russian foreign ministry has also hosted representatives of the UN recognized government.
Fayez Seraj, the head of the Government of National Accord, visited Moscow earlier in March.
Gen Haftar’s forces control large swathes of eastern Libya, including the key cities of Bengazi and Tobruk, but does not recognize the UN recognized Government of National Accord based in Tripoli.
He enjoys strong backing from by Egypt, which sees him as a potential secular strongman ruler who could replace the weak official government.
In February Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, said Russia was “testing” the military alliance with overtures to Gen Haftar.
“We don’t need the bear sticking his paws in,” he said as defence and foreign ministers gathered at the Munich Security Conference.
Some Western governments have said they would not rule out joining the Russians in backing the renegade general, however.
An Italian official told the Telegraph last month that Rome would call on allies including Britain to take a more “pragmatic” approach to solving the on going civil war and immigration crisis in Libya
Roland Oliphant – Moscow correspondent for The Telegraph