(Reuters) Russia appears to have deployed special forces to an airbase in western Egypt near the border with Libya in recent days, U.S., Egyptian and diplomatic sources say, a move that would add to U.S. concerns about Moscow’s deepening role in Libya.
The U.S. and diplomatic officials said any such Russian deployment might be part of a bid to support Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar, who suffered a setback with an attack on March 3 by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) on oil ports controlled by his forces.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States has observed what appeared to be Russian special operations forces and drones at Sidi Barrani, about 60 miles (100 km) from the Egypt-Libya border.
Egyptian security sources offered more detail, describing a 22-member Russian special forces unit, but declined to discuss its mission. They added that Russia also used another Egyptian base farther east in Marsa Matrouh in early February.
The apparent Russian deployments have not been previously reported.
The Russian defense ministry did not immediately provide comment on Monday and Egypt denied the presence of any Russian contingent on its soil.
“There is no foreign soldier from any foreign country on Egyptian soil. This is a matter of sovereignty,” Egyptian army spokesman Tamer al-Rifai said.
The U.S. military declined comment. U.S. intelligence on Russian military activities is often complicated by its use of contractors or forces without uniforms, officials say.
Russian military aircraft flew about six military units to Marsa Matrouh before the aircraft continued to Libya about 10 days later, the Egyptian sources said.
Reuters could not independently verify any presence of Russian special forces and drones or military aircraft in Egypt.
Mohamed Manfour, commander of Benina air base near Benghazi, denied that Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) had received military assistance from the Russian state or from Russian military contractors, and said there were no Russian forces or bases in eastern Libya.
Several Western countries, including the U.S., have sent special operations forces and military advisors into Libya over the past two years. The U.S. military also carried out air strikes to support a successful Libyan campaign last year to oust Islamic State from its stronghold in the city of Sirte.
Questions about Russia’s role in north Africa coincide with growing concerns in Washington about Moscow’s intentions in oil-rich Libya, which has become a patchwork of rival fiefdoms in the aftermath of a 2011 NATO-backed uprising against the late leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was a client of the former Soviet Union.
The U.N.-backed government in Tripoli is in a deadlock with Haftar, and Russian officials have met with both sides in recent months. Moscow appears prepared to back up its public diplomatic support for Haftar even though Western governments were already irked at Russia’s intervention in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad.
A force of several dozen armed private security contractors from Russia operated until February in a part of Libya that is under Haftar’s control, the head of the firm that hired the contractors told Reuters.
The top U.S. military commander overseeing troops in Africa, Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, told the U.S. Senate last week that Russia was trying to exert influence in Libya to strengthen its leverage over whoever ultimately holds power.