US says drone shot down by Russian air defenses near Libyan capital

(AFP)
Updated 07 December 2019

US says drone shot down by Russian air defenses near Libyan capital

  • An official in Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) believe that Russian mercenaries appeared to be responsible
  • Such a shootdown would underscore Moscow’s increasingly muscular role in the energy-rich nation

The US military believes that an unarmed American drone reported lost near Libya’s capital last month was in fact shot down by Russian air defenses and it is demanding the return of the aircraft’s wreckage, US Africa Command says.
Such a shootdown would underscore Moscow’s increasingly muscular role in the energy-rich nation, where Russian mercenaries are reportedly intervening on behalf of east Libya-based commander Khalifa Haftar in Libya’s civil war.
Haftar has sought to take the capital Tripoli, now held by Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
US Army General Stephen Townsend, who leads Africa command, said he believed the operators of the air defenses at the time “didn’t know it was a US remotely piloted aircraft when they fired on it.”
“But they certainly know who it belongs to now and they are refusing to return it. They say they don’t know where it is but I am not buying it,” Townsend told Reuters in a statement, without elaborating.
The US assessment, which has not been previously disclosed, concludes that either Russian private military contractors or Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army were operating the air defenses at the time the drone was reported lost on Nov. 21, said Africa Command spokesman Air Force Col. Christopher Karns.
Karns said the United States believed the air defense operators fired on the US aircraft after “mistaking it for an opposition” drone.
An official in Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) told Reuters that Russian mercenaries appeared to be responsible.
Russian authorities deny using military contractors in any foreign military theater and say any Russian civilians who may be fighting abroad are volunteers. The LNA denies it has foreign backing.
One current and one former Russian contractor told Reuters that since September the LNA had received ground support from several hundred private military contractors from a Russian group.
Military officials linked to the GNA and Western diplomats have also confirmed the presence of Russian contractors in Libya.

TIPPING THE BALANCE

Haftar, who claims to be fighting to rid Tripoli of Islamist-leaning armed groups, has received support from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, and, most recently, from Russian mercenaries, according to diplomats and Tripoli officials
Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Russians’ contributions of advanced capabilities — everything from snipers to precision weaponry — could be felt on the battlefield, boosting the morale of Haftar’s forces.
“It’s giving Haftar a real technological edge,” said Wehrey, who recently returned from Libya.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in an interview with Reuters earlier this week, declined to comment directly on the drone but said he believed Russia was trying to “put their finger on the scale” in Libya’s civil war to create a situation that was advantageous to Moscow.
Townsend voiced deep concern about Russia’s growing role in the country, including how it would affect Libya’s “territorial sovereignty and AFRICOM’s counter-terrorism mission.”
“This highlights the malign influence of Russian mercenaries acting to influence the outcome of the civil war in Libya, and who are directly responsible for the recent and sharp increase in fighting, casualties and destruction around Tripoli,” Townsend said.
Mohammed Ali Abdallah, adviser for US affairs in Libya’s GNA, said the US drone had come down near the pro-LNA stronghold of Tarhuna, 65km (40 miles) south-east of Tripoli.
More than 1,400 Russian mercenaries were deployed with the LNA, he said.
“Only the Russians have that ability — and they were operating where it happened,” Abdallah said, in written comments sent to Reuters.
“It’s our understanding that Haftar was asked by his Russian partners to claim responsibility, despite not having the capability or equipment to shoot down a US drone.”
More than 200 civilians have been killed and more than 128,000 displaced in the fighting since April, according to UN figures.


Initial investigations point to negligence as cause of Beirut blast

Updated 38 min 16 sec ago

Initial investigations point to negligence as cause of Beirut blast

  • 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures
  • A source said a fire had started at warehouse 9 of the port and spread to warehouse 12, where the ammonium nitrate was stored

BEIRUT: Initial investigations indicate years of inaction and negligence over the storage of highly explosive material in Beirut port caused the blast that killed over 100 people on Tuesday, an official source familiar with the findings said.
The prime minister and presidency said on Tuesday that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilisers and bombs, had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures.
"It is negligence," the official source told Reuters, adding that the storage safety issue had been before several committees and judges and "nothing was done" to issue an order to remove or dispose of the highly combustible material.
The source said a fire had started at warehouse 9 of the port and spread to warehouse 12, where the ammonium nitrate was stored.
Tuesday's explosion was the most powerful ever suffered by Beirut, a city is still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from a deep financial crisis rooted in decades of corruption and economic mismanagement.
Badri Daher, Director General of Lebanese Customs, told broadcaster LBCI on Wednesday that customs had sent six documents to the judiciary warning that the material posed a danger.
"We requested that it be re-exported but that did not happen. We leave it to the experts and those concerned to determine why," Daher said.
Another source close to a port employee said a team that inspected the ammonium nitrate six months ago warned that if it was not moved it would "blow up all of Beirut".
According to two documents seen by Reuters, Lebanese Customs had asked the judiciary in 2016 and 2017 to ask the "concerned maritime agency" to re-export or approve the sale of the ammonium nitrate, removed from the a cargo vessel, Rhosus, and deposited in warehouse 12, to ensure port safety.
One of the documents cited similar requests in 2014 and 2015.
"A local and international investigation needs to be conducted into the incident, given the scale and the circumstances under which these goods were brought into the ports," said Ghassan Hasbani, former deputy prime minister and a member of the Lebanese Forces party.
Shiparrested.com, an industry network dealing with legal cases, had said in a 2015 report that the Rhosus, sailing under a Moldovan flag, docked in Beirut in September 2013 when it had technical problems while sailing from Georgia to Mozambique with 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
It said that, upon inspection, the vessel was forbidden from sailing and shortly afterwards it was abandoned by its owners, leading to various creditors coming forward with legal claims.
"Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port's warehouses," it added.