The U.S. military believes that an unarmed American drone reported lost near Libyaâ€™s capital last month was in fact shot down by Russian air defenses and it is demanding the return of the aircraftâ€™s wreckage, U.S. Africa Command says.
Such a shootdown would underscore Moscowâ€™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 Libyaâ€™s civil war.
Haftar has sought to take the capital Tripoli, now held by Libyaâ€™s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, who leads Africa command, said he believed the operators of the air defenses at the time â€śdidnâ€™t know it was a U.S. remotely piloted aircraft when they fired on it.â€ť
â€śBut they certainly know who it belongs to now and they are refusing to return it. They say they donâ€™t know where it is but I am not buying it,â€ť Townsend told Reuters in a statement, without elaborating.
The U.S. assessment, which has not been previously disclosed, concludes that either Russian private military contractors or Haftarâ€™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 Colonel Christopher Karns.
Karns said the United States believed the air defense operators fired on the U.S. aircraft after â€śmistaking it for an oppositionâ€ť drone.
An official in Libyaâ€™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.