By Samer Al-Atrush
Thursday May 21, 2020
Khalifa Haftar Photographer: NurPhoto/NurPhoto
Russian-backed Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar’s air force will launch what is says are unprecedented strikes on Turkish targets in the North African country, signaling a possible escalation after a week of setbacks in the war against the Turkish-backed government in Tripoli.
The announcement came as Fathi Bashagha, the security chief of Haftar’s rivals in the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli, told Bloomberg at least eight Soviet-era jets have arrived in the east from a Russian airbase in Syria, possibly to assist in any new aerial campaign.
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Haftar’s forces, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russian mercenaries, launched the war to take the capital more than a year ago, making inroads in Tripoli’s suburbs. Turkish military intervention, however, has turned the tide in the battle for the OPEC member state, forcing Haftar’s troops to withdraw from a strategic airbase this week and to announce a partial withdrawal from the frontlines in Tripoli.
The defeats were accompanied by a Turkish armed drone campaign that targeted Russian-made Pantsir air defense systems. One of the batteries was captured intact and paraded in Tripoli on Wednesday.
“You are about to see the largest aerial campaign in Libyan history in the coming hours,” Haftar’s air force chief Saqr al-Jaroushi said in a statement. “All Turkish positions and interests in all cities are legitimate targets for our airforce jets and we call on civilians to stay away from them.” Jaroushi confirmed the statement’s veracity to Bloomberg in a text message.
Bashagha said his Government of National Accord had received information that at least six MiG 29s and two Sukhoi 24s had flown into the east from the Russian-controlled Hmeimim Air Base in Syria, escorted by two SU-35 Russian airforce jets. It was not clear whether those were refurbished jets that had belonged to Haftar’s airforce or new additions to his fleet.
Earlier this week, the United Nations acting Libya envoy Stephanie Williams warned of a possible escalation in a war that’s drawn intervention from the UAE, Egypt and Turkey for control of the oil-rich country that’s witnessed a series of wars since a 2011 revolt ousted dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Thousands of Russian and Sudanese mercenaries, as well as Syrians, are also backing Haftar while the U.A.E had supported him with armed drone strikes, according to Western officials.
The Tripoli-based government has been backed by Turkey, which deployed armed drones, naval frigates and thousands of Syrian militiamen to defend the capital. Over the past month, the Turkish-backed government forces have swept across much of Haftar’s strongholds in the west and encircled his remaining bastions, prompting Haftar’s Libyan National Army to announce it would partially withdraw from Tripoli’s suburbs.