Despite air superiority for nearly a year, Khalifa Haftar’s forces have been halted in Tripoli and are now in retreat.
Western mercenaries linked with two Dubai-based companies arrived in Libya with plans to assist forces loyal to eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar in their year-long offensive to capture the capital, Tripoli, a news report said.
Bloomberg News, citing a confidential UN report, reported the team of 20 soldiers arrived in the North African country in June 2019 before quickly withdrawing to Malta days later, the US publication said on Friday.
The military contractors were affiliated with Lancaster 6 DMCC and Opus Capital Asset Limited FZE, both registered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Libya, a major oil producer, has been engulfed in chaos since 2011 when longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in a NATO-backed uprising.
It is now split between two rival administrations: the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the House of Representatives allied with Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).
In addition to Russia and Egypt, the UAE counts among Haftar’s most important supporters.
William Lawrence, former US diplomat and political science professor at American University, said UAE’s support for Haftar “is primarily due to their aversion to every kind of Islamism, including political Islam.”
“They tend to lump together groups like the largest democratic parties in Morocco and Tunisia along with groups in parliament in most of the Arab countries such as Jordan, Kuwait and elsewhere,” Lawrence told Al Jazeera.
“They tend to loop these groups with others like ISIS [ISIL] and al-Qaeda. [For them], all Islamists are a threat and equally deserving of being sanctioned under international terrorist sanctions and being attacked by any means necessary.”
‘Simply not factual’
Bloomberg quoted two diplomats as saying the companies financed and directed an operation to provide Haftar’s forces with helicopters, drones and cyber capabilities through a complex web of shell companies.
Though uncertain as to the reason behind the team’s prompt withdrawal, UN investigators said they were not convinced by the explanation given by lawyers that it was contracted to provide services relating to oil and gas.
A letter from Vince Gordon, the lawyer representing some reportedly involved, said “allegations about the unlawful activity of Opus and Lancaster 6 in Libya are simply not factual and spread based on a patchwork of half-truths”.
“Our clients intend to vigorously defend themselves and their directors and employees against false and misleading allegations,” said Gordon.
It was not the first time reports of foreign mercenaries partaking in the battle for Tripoli have emerged.
In September, Russian fighters from the private Wagner group – owned by a close confidant of President Vladimir Putin – were said to have joined Haftar’s troops on the front lines.
Thousands more from Sudan were also reported to have assisted the LNA while Syrian mercenaries are present on both sides, including rebels from the opposition Syrian National Army sent by Turkey, the GNA’s sole military benefactor.
‘Shedding Libyan blood’
A member of Libya’s Presidential Council called for the severing of relations with the UAE amid accusations of the Gulf state backing Haftar.
In a letter to the Libyan government of Prime Minister al-Sarraj, council member Mohamed Amaria Zayed described the UAE as an “aggressor and enemy”, and urged the Libyan authorities “to pursue the UAE at international courts”.
“It is proven beyond doubt that the UAE is involved in shedding the Libyan blood, violating the country’s sovereignty by occupying part of its land, establishing military bases, violating our airspace and carrying out air strikes with the aim of killing Libyan citizens,” he said.
Zayed accused the UAE of providing military, political and financial support to Haftar’s forces “with the aim of toppling the legitimate government”.