(Bloomberg) -- The security chief for Libya’s U.N.-backed government accused Russia of fueling a months-long war to extend its influence over the strategic oil producer, and called on the U.S. to step up efforts to resolve the conflict.
Fathi Bashagha, the Tripoli-based government’s interior minister, said counter terrorism cooperation with the U.S. that led to a series of devastating airstrikes on Islamic State in September was continuing, but the war launched by eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar provided fertile grounds for the terrorist organization to regroup.
United Nations-led efforts to persuade regional powers that have intervened on both sides of the conflict to deescalate have been complicated by a growing deployment of Russian mercenaries who are now fighting alongside Haftar’s forces on the stalled battle lines near Tripoli. The mercenaries are employed by the Wagner Group, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an associate of President Vladimir Putin.
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“The Russians have intervened to pour fuel on the fire and enhance the crisis rather than finding a solution,” Bashagha told Bloomberg in an interview in Tunis ahead of a visit to Washington. “The proof is their deployment of Wagner to Libya. They had sent it to Syria before, and central Africa, and wherever Wagner goes destruction happens.”
Bashagha accused Russia of aspiring to restore power to remnants of Muammar Al-Qaddafi’s regime, ousted in a NATO-backed rebellion in 2011, and boosting its influence in Africa and on Europe’s southern flank.
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Russia has officially denied the presence of Wagner fighters in Libya, but sources in Moscow and Western diplomats say hundreds of the mercenaries have been deployed to the front lines since September.
With its intervention, Russia has joined an already crowded field of foreign countries trying to determine the conflict in the North African country that sits on top of the continent’s largest proven oil reserves.
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The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have also provided support for Haftar, who controls most of Libya’s oil fields, while Turkey backs the internationally recognized Government of National Accord based in Tripoli. The United States, with more pressing priorities elsewhere in the world, has mostly stood aside.
“The U.S. has an obligation, moral and legal, toward Libya. The U.S. was a strong partner in bringing down the old regime. It should cooperate with us Libyans to restore stability and security,” Bashagha said. “We call on the U.S to play an effective role, and we are prepared for full cooperation with the U.S. and the United Nations.”
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