The United States has stepped up pressure on Middle East allies to expel the Wagner Group, a military contractor owned by an oligarch with close ties to Russia’s president, from chaos-stricken Libya and Sudan where it has expanded in recent years, regional officials told The Associated Press.
The U.S. effort described by officials comes as the Biden administration is making a broad push against the mercenaries. The U.S. has slapped new sanctions on the Wagner Group in recent months over its expanding role in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The group is owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Pentagon has described it as a surrogate for the Russian Defense Ministry. The Kremlin denies any connection.
The Biden administration has been working for months with regional powers Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to pressure military leaders in Sudan and Libya to end their ties with the group, according to more than a dozen Libyan, Sudanese and Egyptian officials. They asked for anonymity to speak freely and because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.
A senior Egyptian government official with direct knowledge of the talks said the Wagner group “is at the top of every meeting.”
The group doesn’t announce its operations, but its presence is known from reports on the ground and other evidence. In Sudan, it was originally associated with former strongman Omar al-Bashir and now works with the military leaders who replaced him. In Libya, it’s associated with east Libya-based military commander Khalifa Hifter.
Wagner has deployed thousands of operatives in African and Middle Eastern countries including Mali, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Syria. Its aim in Africa, analysts say, is to support Russia’s interests amid rising global interest in the resource-rich continent. Rights experts working with the U.S. on Jan. 31 accused the group of committing possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Mali, where it is fighting alongside government forces.
The group’s role in Libya and Sudan was central to talks between CIA director William Burns and officials in Egypt and Libya in January. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also discussed the group with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in a late-January trip to Cairo, Egyptian officials said. Weeks after the visits, Burns acknowledged in a Thursday speech at Georgetown University in Washington that after recent travel to Africa, he was concerned about Wagner’s growing influence in the continent.
U.N. experts said Wagner mercenaries were deployed Libya since 2018, helping Hifter’s forces in their fight against Islamist militants in eastern Libya. The group was also involved in his failed offensive on Tripoli in April 2019.
The U.S. Africa Command, AFRICOM, estimated that some 2,000 Wagner mercenaries were in Libya between July-September 2020, before a cease-fire. The mercenaries were equipped with armored vehicles, air defense systems, fighter aircraft and other equipment supplied by Russia, according to AFRICOM. The report also said Wagner appeared to be receiving money from the UAE, a main foreign backer of Hifter.
Since the 2020 cease-fire, Wagner’s activities have centered around oil facilities in central Libya, and they have continued providing military training to Hifter forces, Libyan officials said. It is not clear how many Wagner mercenaries are still in Libya.
U.S. officials have demanded that mercenaries be pulled out of oil facilities, another Libyan official said.
Hifter did not offer any commitments, but asked for assurances that Turkey and the Libyan militias it backed in western Libya will not attack his forces in the coastal city of Sirte and other areas in central Libya.
Egypt, which has close ties with Hifter, has demanded that Wagner not be stationed close to its borders.
There is no evidence yet that the Biden administration’s pressure has yielded results in either Sudan or Libya, observers said.
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