MOSCOW (AP) — A senior Russian lawmaker on Wednesday strongly rejected the U.S. military’s claim that Russia has deployed fighter jets to Libya to support east-based forces in their offensive on the capital, Tripoli.
Viktor Bondarev, the former Russian air force chief who heads the defense committee in the upper house of parliament, dismissed the claim by the U.S. Africa Command as “stupidity.”
“If the warplanes are in Libya, they are Soviet, not Russian,” he said.
The U.S. Africa Command said Tuesday the Russian military aircraft arrived in Libya recently from an airbase in Russia via Syria, where they were repainted to hide their Russian origin. AFRICOM did not say exactly how many aircraft were transferred or when exactly they arrived in Libya.
AFRICOM said the aircraft were likely to provide close air support and offensive fire for the Wagner Group, a Russia-based state-sponsored company that employs mercenaries to fight alongside the eastern forces of military commander Khalifa Hifter.
Bondarev noted that several African nations operate MiG-29 fighter jets — the warplanes of the type seen on a Libyan airfield in images released by AFRICOM.
Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The country is now split between a government in the east allied with Hifter and one in Tripoli, in the west, supported by the United Nations.
Hifter’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces launched an offensive to capture Tripoli last year, clashing with an array of militias loosely allied with the U.N.-supported but weak government there. Hifter is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia, while the Tripoli-allied militias are aided by Turkey, Qatar and Italy.
In the past two months, Hifter’s forces have lost a string of western towns and a key airbase after Turkey stepped up military support for his rivals, sending drones, air defense systems, armored vehicles and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.