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Fighter jets commanded by the Libyan military general Khalifa Haftar were secretly upgraded and serviced using parts shipped in by Russia over 2019 and 2020, violating the existing UN arms embargo, according to security sources with knowledge of the operations.
The parts were flown into the Benina airbase, located south of Benghazi and adjacent to Benina International airport.
According to the sources, after a plane had been upgraded using Russian parts, images of the aircraft would often be posted to social media with captions claiming that they had been repaired using parts from stockpiles built up by Muamar Ghaddafi, the country’s former dictator, who was killed in 2011 during the country’s civil war.
“Though some parts were taken from old stockpiles or made from scratch, many key components were brought in by supply planes coordinated by Russia,” said one source.
“The planes would often look like a patchwork of old parts on the outside, but inside they would have new parts from Russia fitted, with some elements being upgraded so that the planes could perform better.”
At least three models of aircraft received upgrades. These were the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21, the Sukhoi Su-24 and the Sukhoi Su-27.
The equipment imported by Russia included parts relating to the engines of the aircraft as well as guns that were mounted on the aircraft, according to security sources.
On 4 April 2019, Khalifa Haftar launched a military campaign to try to take control of Tripoli, Libya’s capital and the location of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
It was executed by the Libyan National Army (LNA), the armed forces of the House of Representatives (HoR), a rival government that is based in Tobruk in Libya’s east.
“The plan to make the existing LNA fighter jets much better came after the initial Tripoli attack,” said one source.
“The air force controlled by Hafter was key to his strategy to take Tripoli – but planes kept crashing or being destroyed by anti-aircraft guns.
“This prompted Russia to offer to upgrade the LNA’s existing planes so they were less vulnerable to attack and less likely to malfunction.”
The beginning of the operation to upgrade Hafter’s existing fleet of warplanes coincided with the shipment of Russian-made fighter jets to Libya to expand Haftar’s air force.
In May 2020, US Africa Command (Africom), which is responsible for US military operations in African nations, released photographs that showed Russian fighter jets were deployed to Libya in order to support Russian state-sponsored private military contractors operating on the ground there.
The Russian fighter aircraft arrived in Libya, from an airbase in Russia, after transiting in Syria where Africom said they were repainted to camouflage their Russian origin.
Africom later said that the jets that flew into Libya consisted of “at least 14 MiG-29s and several Su-24s”.
At the time, US Army General Stephen Townsend, commander of Africom, said: "For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict.
“Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth generation jet fighters to Libya – every step of the way.
“Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support – support they are getting from Russia."
The US has alleged that Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its actions.
Speaking in May last year, Townsend said: “The world heard Mr Haftar declare he was about to unleash a new air campaign.
“That will be Russian mercenary pilots flying Russian-supplied aircraft to bomb Libyans.”
The Libyan Air Force also reportedly took delivery of four Russian-made Su-27 Flanker fighter aircraft in January 2015.
At the time, an unnamed Libyan official was quoted by Libya’s official LANA news agency as saying that informed military sources in the LNA confirmed on 5 January 2015 that four new Sukhoi fighter jets effectively joined the squadrons of the Libyan Air Force.
As Libya is not listed as an official buyer of the Sukhoi Su-27, it is believed to have acquired second-hand or refurbished fighters from several countries.
The UN Security Council has imposed an arms embargo on Libya since February 2011 relating to the supply or arms and military equipment to and from Libya.
It is unknown exactly what route the supply flights took to deliver the airplane parts to Libya’s Benina airbase so that Hafter’s existing fleet could be upgraded.
Russian flights flying into the airbase routinely turn off the transmission of their location using the aviation transponder interrogation modes known as “Mode S”.
This makes it harder to track the plane’s location.
It is believed that the flights may have flown to Libya via Syria.
Often Russian flights are documented flying southwest from the Khmeimim Air Base, a base in Syria that is operated by Russia and located southeast of the city of Latakia.
Hafter’s initial military campaign to take Tripoli in 2019 was given the name Operation Flood of Dignity.
Initially, the LNA made good progress in the conflict with their superior air power proving to be a pivotal element in their strategy.
On 8 April 2019, LNA fighter jets under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar carried out a strike on Tripoli's sole operating airport Mitiga.
The military airport of Mitiga had been used as a key transport hub in western Libya since 2014, when Tripoli International airport was rendered inoperative due to damage from fighting.
Over time, however, the LNA’s progress in its attempt to take control of Tripoli slowed, partly due to the increasing air capabilities of the GNA.
In November 2019, Turkey signed a treaty with Libya’s Tripoli-based government offering military support in return for permission to access Mediterranean gas fields.
Turkish support for the Tripoli-based government included the supply of drones, which proved key in turning the tide against the LNA.
In June 2020, the LNA’s offensive crumbled and forces commanded by Haftar withdrew from the town of Tarhouna towards Sirte and the Al-Jufra airbase in central Libya.
A peace agreement was announced by both sides in the conflict in September 2020 and in October a formal peace deal was signed.
Much remains unknown, however, about the extent to which outside forces breached the UN arms embargo.
In September 2020, Russia and China blocked the official release of a report by UN experts on Libya that accused its warring parties and their international backers, including Russia, of violating the UN arms embargo.
Germany’s deputy UN ambassador, Gunter Sautter, said he brought the issue to the Security Council after the two countries blocked the report’s release by the committee monitoring sanctions on Libya, which Germany heads.
“Many delegations have asked for the publication of the panel of experts’ interim report,” he said.
Sautter said that the report would have created “much-needed” transparency regarding arms transfers to the country.
He said: “It would contribute to naming and shaming those who continue to blatantly violate the arms embargo in spite of agreements that have been made.”
A full UN expert panel report is expected to be published over coming weeks with more information about violations of the arms embargo during 2019 and 2020.