United States Africa Command demands the wreckage of an unarmed drone that was mistakenly taken down by Russian air-defenses over Lybia. Still, Russia says it has no idea where it went.
The incident marks the growing Russian influence in the region, with many Russian mercenaries taking the side of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in the ongoing civil war and rebelling against the UN-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) which is backed by the United States.
Haftar claims to be fighting Islamic extremist forces and is backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, officials say.
United States Africa Commander in Chief general Stephen Townsend was not amused. He believes the Russians probably “didn’t know it was a U.S. remotely piloted aircraft when they fired on it,” but, he said, “they certainly know who it belongs to now.”
“They are refusing to return it,” Townsend said, according to Reuters. “They say they don’t know where it is, but I am not buying it.
“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.”
The U.S.-made drone of which no specifics were released was probably assigned the task of aerial surveillance, and monitoring, hostile strongholds in the area before it went off the radar on November 21.
Africa Command spokesperson Christopher Karns said it was either Russian military contractors or LNA conscripts who operated the Defense system.
Meanwhile, Mohammed Ali Abdallah, adviser for U.S. affairs in Libya’s GNA, said Haftar and his LNA accomplices don’t have the tools to achieve such a feat, saying, “Only the Russians have that ability—and they were operating where it happened,” he told Reuters, indicating the shooting happened near Tarhuna, 40 miles south-east of Tripoli, in LNA controlled territory.
Abdallah added that more than 1,400 Russian mercenaries were deployed there. “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 U.S. drone,” he said.
United States defense secretary Mark Esper did not comment directly on the incident but said he believed Russia is trying to “put their finger on the scale,” meaning they’re trying to tip the scale to their advantage.
Russia denies having sent mercenaries to the torn-up nation and that all Russian fighters present are volunteers. The NLA also denies receiving back up from any external force.