U.S. officials are also concerned about the long-term goals of Kremlin allies in the war-torn state. An intelligence official notes that the trench is a sign that Wagner, who, the official said, has his largest global presence in Libya, “is getting into the long haul.”
The trench, which stretches for tens of kilometers south of the populated coastal areas around Sirte towards the Wagner-controlled stronghold of al-Jufra, can be seen on satellite images and supported by a number of elaborate fortifications.
CNN has contacted the Russian government for comment and has not received any response.
The trench and fortifications appear to be designed to prevent or stop a land attack on LNA-controlled areas in the east that run through the populated coastal areas of Libya, which have seen the most clashes since the fall of the 2011 Moammar Gadhafi government.
GNA has released photos of excavators and trucks creating ditches and berms running next to it, saying the work appeared ongoing as late as this month.
That trench, said the US intelligence official, is another reason “we see no intention or movement from either Turkish or Russian forces to abide by the UN-mediated agreement. This has the potential to derail an already fragile peace process and ceasefire. It will be a really difficult years to come. “
Open source surveillance says it has mapped a series of more than 30 defensive positions dug into the desert and mountain slopes that stretch for about 70 kilometers.
Satellite images from Maxar appear to show both the ditch that stretches along a main road and the fortifications dug, also by Wagner mercenaries and their contractors.
Photos show a build-up of defenses around the Jufra air base and also the Brak airfield further south, where apparently radar defenses have been installed and fortified.
GNA Defense Secretary Salaheddin Al-Namroush told CNN: “I do not think anyone is digging a trench today and making these reinforcements, leaving soon.”
Claudia Gazzini, of the International Crisis Group, told CNN that the trench was “really worrying,” and that talk of it “has been circulating among diplomats for the past few weeks. It is underway and will suggest that Moscow is eager to cement its presence in Libya. “
Analysts have said the Kremlin is keen to increase its military presence and influence in the Mediterranean along NATO’s southern abdomen with the added bonus of involvement in and profits from Libya’s oil industry.
Gazzini added that there were repeated reports that both sides continued to maintain and build a presence of foreign mercenaries, with GNA also being accused of increasing its supplies of military equipment under a public agreement with Turkey to support its armed forces. .
The US intelligence official said the number of mercenaries on both the GNA and LNA sites was relatively consistent: an estimated 10,000 were currently in Libya, according to a September AFRICOM report on the subject.
The Libyan rollout of about 2,000 Wagner foreign mercenaries – mostly believed to be citizens of Russia or former Soviet Union – is the largest private military company in the world, the U.S. official said.
An LNA spokesman, Major General Khaled al-Mahjoub, confirmed the existence of the trenches to CNN, but described them as “temporary” sand barriers and trenches in “an open area … for defense and combat.” He denied the presence of 2,000 Wagner mercenaries, saying there were consultants “announced a long time ago.”
But a confidential UN report in June obtained by CNN described Wagner fighters as “an effective force multiplier.”
Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there were no Russians in Libya, but if there are, they do not represent Russia. Russia has always denied that it uses mercenaries to fight for it.
Despite an arms embargo, UN inspectors registered dozens of Russian flights to Libya throughout 2020.
The US African Command has publicly called on Russia for enlargement, saying it resembles actions in Syria.
In June, the head of the defense committee of the upper house of the Russian parliament, Viktor Bondarev, said the US claim was “stupid” and suggested that they were old Soviet planes from somewhere else in Africa.
A Western diplomat with knowledge of arms movements to Libya said Russian flights to the country had dropped from their peak of 93 in August down to just over a dozen monthly by the end of 2020. “They’re just holding on to the ground,” he said. said, adding that Turkey flew in similar numbers.
Turkey’s military is open about its desire for a permanent presence and is sending pictures of its military providing GNA “Base Defense Training” this past week.
“It’s a comprehensive effort,” the U.S. official said. “They build facilities, bring in personnel and equipment. They have HAWK air defense missile batteries, 3D [KALAKAN] radar.”
Satellite images of al-Khom’s port show minor changes suggesting it may be made ready for a prolonged Turkish naval presence, which GNA’s al-Namroush has denied.
A senior Turkish security official told CNN that they “continue to offer military training, cooperation and advice … according to GNA’s needs and requirements.”
The thousands of Syrian mercenaries that Turkey has flown in and supported in Libya have also been used elsewhere, the US intelligence official revealed. Under Turkey’s support for the Azerbaijani government during their recent conflict with Armenia, planes carried hundreds of Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan to help Turkey’s allies in their war with Armenia, the US official said.
“It seems that there is some movement of some of the Syrian mercenary forces in the direction of the conflict in [Nagorno Karabakh]. Smaller numbers, in the lower hundreds, ”the official added.
The Russian-backed Wagner forces are intended to give Moscow influence but not responsibility, analysts said. Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Cross-Border Organized Crime, said Wagner’s mercenary forces “by definition are available” – and a “force that does not exist, according to the official version of the Russian state. means that it is not formidable, intimidating and quite effective, “but that it provides the greatest flexibility for the Kremlin.
Gazzini added: “Russian policy in Libya is opaque – what Russia wants to do. From evidence on the ground, it sounds as if they want to consolidate their influence or want to find a way out.”
Still, the U.S. official added that the Russian build-up now consisted of significant personnel and advanced equipment, but one that raised ethical concerns. “Fourth-generation fighter jets and Pantsir missile systems are powered by a less capable, poorly trained Wagner mercenary,” the official said.
“There are complex challenges in Libya, including al Qaeda and ISIS, and mercenaries with their poor level of education, experience and lack of respect for human rights and international law make these weapons systems in these hands most worrying.”
While Wagner’s presence and trench appear to convey an advantage to LNA chief General Haftar, Russia’s presence seems more geared to Moscow’s agenda than Haftar’s support, analysts said.
The Western diplomat said Haftar needed a continued conflict in Libya to maintain relevance. “He will become irrelevant overnight if the conflict is over,” the diplomat said. “And if it does not end on his terms, he will be vulnerable to allegations of war crimes, etc.”