More than a dozen attack jets that Russia sent to Libya this year are conducting ground strikes and other combat missions in support of Russian mercenaries fighting alongside a beleaguered commander in his campaign to oust the government from Tripoli, the capital, a top American military official said on Friday.
The Pentagon’s Africa Command revealed in May the deployment of at least 14 MiG-29 and Su-24 jets to Libya, underscoring Moscow’s deepening role in a sprawling proxy war, where its Libyan ally, the commander Khalifa Hifter, had experienced a series of setbacks that dealt his campaign a major blow.
The planes were flown from Russia to Syria, where their Russian markings were painted over to camouflage their origin, American military officials said. The aircraft were then flown into Libya, in violation of a United Nations arms embargo. At the time, the scope and scale of the aircrafts’ missions were unclear.
Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, the Africa Command’s director of intelligence, said on Friday that the Russian planes, flown by crews from the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-backed private military company whose mercenaries provided a major boost to Mr. Hifter’s assault on Tripoli last fall, had carried out several ground strikes and other missions.