US diplomats speculate deployment might be a move to support embattled commander Khalifa Haftar, who recently suffered an attack on northern oil ports
Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, Lin Noueihed
Russia appears to have deployed special forces to an airbase in western Egypt near the border with Libya in recent days, US, Egyptian and diplomatic sources say, a move that would add to US concerns about Moscow’s deepening role in Libya.
The US 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 US 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 defence 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 US military declined comment. US 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.