Retreating Russian Wagner Group Mined Tripoli Areas
As troops loyal to Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar retreated from the southern outskirts of Tripoli recently, they left behind booby-trapped land mines to maim and kill returning residents. Many of the mines were Russian- or Soviet-made — the calling card of the Kremlin-backed mercenaries known as the Wagner Group.
U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) recently announced it has photographic proof of the Wagner Group’s role in mining the Tripoli neighborhoods as part of Russia’s support for Haftar’s side in the ongoing civil war. Haftar’s militia, known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), along with the eastern-based House of Representatives oppose the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.
“Imagery and intelligence assessments show how Russia continues to interfere in Libyan affairs. Wagner Group’s reckless use of land mines and booby traps are harming innocent civilians,” said Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, AFRICOM’s director of intelligence.
AFRICOM confirmed what Tripoli resident Muhammed Barghuth suggested in late May when he told Al-Jazeera that he returned to his home to find it had had been used as an operations post by Russians.
“We found Russian items including military stationery and ammunition everywhere in the house,” Barghuth said.
Libya is not the only African country touched by the Wagner Group. Private Russian security groups operate in 15 other nations on the continent, according to AFRICOM.
Quoting the Libyan Army’s Facebook page, Turkey’s Daily Sabah reported on July 21 that a land mine left by Wagner Group forces in the Qasr bin Ghashir area had exploded the day before, killing a child and another person.
While Libya had huge stockpiles of unguarded ordnance after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, images published by GNA supporters on Twitter and Facebook have shown Turkish and Libyan troops disarming mines, many of them carrying Russian markings.
U.S. officials say Russia has provided military weaponry including more than a dozen MIG-29 fighter jets with their Russian markings covered up, acting against the U.N. arms embargo on Libya and further exacerbating the conflict.
Partly as a result of the mining operation, the U.S. has also sanctioned three people and five organizations connected to the Wagner Group. All have close ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin, who himself has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and is considered to be the financial backer of the Wagner Group.
“The Russian-state-sponsored Wagner Group is demonstrating a total disregard for the safety and security of Libyans,” said Maj. Gen. Bradford Gering, AFRICOM’s director of operations. “The Wagner Group’s irresponsible tactics are prolonging conflict and are responsible for the needless suffering and the deaths of innocent civilians. Russia has the power to stop them, just not the will.”
Despite the withdrawal of hundreds of Wagner Group mercenaries from Tripoli, Russia almost certainly remains committed to supporting Haftar and will continue to provide military support to the LNA, according to Brian Katz, an International Security Program fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In a briefing on July 13, Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said that 52 people had died and 96 had been injured by explosive booby traps as they sought to return home or to clear the mine-infected areas.
A few days later, on July 16, The Libya Observer website reported that three young children had been wounded in a land mine explosion inside a home in the Al-Khalla region of Tripoli.
Land mines left behind by the Wagner Group further complicate Libya’s attempt to resolve its long-running conflict and find a peaceful solution to life post-Gadhafi, analysts say.
“This latest land mine use is adding to Libya’s already considerable burden of uncleared mines, abandoned ordnance, unexploded ordnance and danger for Libyans for years to come,” said Stephen Goose, founder of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.