TRIPOLI, 22 January 2021 – Foreign fighters have only until Saturday, 23 January, to leave Libya, in keeping with the UN-brokered ceasefire sealed last October in Switzerland.
Twenty-four hours ahead of the deadline, intelligence gathered through satellite imagery suggests that foreign fighters – who number an estimated 10,000 – do not appear ready to abide by this confidence-building measure.
Mercenaries come from all over the world and they are all apparently digging trenches and building massive fortifications stretching many miles, ready to counter attacks, according to CNN International citing US intelligence sources.
Open-source monitoring was also cited Friday by CNN as saying it has mapped a series of more than 30 defensive positions dug into the desert and hillsides that stretch for about 70 kilometres.
Russian-backed mercenaries of the Wagner group – numbering about 2,000 fighters – appear to be “settling in for the long haul”, US intelligence sources told CNN on Friday.
The stronghold of Wagner fighters at al-Jufra, dozens of kilometers south of Sirte, the hometown of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, is still full of foreign fighters, the sources said.
As of Friday, the United Nations Security Council was said to be willing to consider a resolution to add mercenary monitoring to the mandate of the UN Mission in Libya (UNMIL).
Libya has been divided into two major blocks ever since the 2011 fall of the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and no fewer than 2,000 civilians have been killed in fighting there.
Libya’s internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) which is based in the capital, Tripoli, is backed by Turkey, and headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.
The rival government, based in the eastern town of Benghazi, is backed by Russia and the United Arab Emirates and is led by General Khalifa Haftar – the Libyan National Army (LNA).
“We see no intent or movement by either Turkish or Russian forces to abide by the UN-brokered agreement,” US intelligence officers are cited as saying.
The UN called the permanent ceasefire deal between the rivals covering all of Libya a “historic achievement”.
The UN envoy to the talks, Stephanie Williams, said the deal was an “important turning point towards peace and stability in Libya”.
A good part of the optimism that greeted the ceasefire was linked to the agreement that all foreign fighters would leave Libya no later than 23 January 2021.
With that important objective likely to be missed Saturday, US intelligence sources told CNN International on Friday that such disregard of a deadline that is part of the UN-brokered peace “has the potential to derail an already fragile peace process and ceasefire”.
In January 2020, Russia brought the two rival Libyan governments together in Moscow for negotiations, but the two failed to reach a ceasefire in large part because they could not agree a timeline for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters from the country.
The 10,000 foreign mercenaries currently in Libya are believed to be affiliated both to the LNA and GNA, according to a September 2020 report by AFRICOM.
Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there were no Russians in Libya although analysts say “mercenaries of the Wagner group allow Russia to be fully present in Libya and yet be able to claim not being present”.
Analysts warn that any Russian presence will take time and sacrifice to uproot, given the huge advantage Moscow would gain by being based not too far from Europe and several NATO countries.
Russia would also have the added advantage of gaining access to Libya’s rich oil, gas and other mineral resources.