Over 1,000 Russian and Syrian mercenary fighters in Libya retreated from Tripoli’s frontlines to a town south of the capital on Sunday following a Turkish-backed military intervention, Bloomberg reported on Sunday.
The mercenaries reportedly traveled from the capital, Tripoli, to Bani Walid, a town located 93 miles southeast of Tripoli.
The mercenaries’ retreat from Tripoli over the weekend was the latest setback for rebel leader Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and his foreign supporters, who for over a year have attempted to take the capital from the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), also supported by Turkey. Prior to Turkey’s military intervention over the weekend, the LNA was poised to launch an assault on the strategically important capital, according to the report.
Salem Alaywan, Bani Walid’s mayor, confirmed the retreat in a statement to Reuters on Sunday, adding that the mercenaries were subsequently flown from Bani Walid to LNA stronghold Jufra, located in central Libya.
“They [the Russians and Syrians] were flown in three military planes to Jufra, and their military vehicles were driven there,” Alaywan said.
For nearly a decade, Libya has lacked a central government, creating a vacuum that has allowed two rival governments from the east and west of the country to vie for control since 2014. The power struggle has evolved into a proxy war between the two sides and their foreign allies, according to Reuters’ report.
Although LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari has denied that the renegade force uses foreign fighters, their presence in Libya has been documented by Western officials, who say that Russia deployed over 1,400 of them to assist the LNA last summer. The fighters were allegedly hired by the Wagner Company, led by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bloomberg reported. The GNA also enlists the help of foreign fighters, such as Turkey-backed Syrian militiamen.
In addition to Russia and Syria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates support the LNA; Haftar has also recruited fighters from Sudan, according to Al Jazeera. The GNA is supported by Turkish-backed Syrian fighters.
Last week, the GNA captured the LNA’s al-Watiya airbase, a strategically important site near the Tunisian border. Additionally, the GNA has destroyed several air defense systems used by the LNA in recent weeks, according to Al Jazeera’s report. South of the capital, the LNA maintains the town of Tarhouna, despite recent gains by the GNA in overtaking other LNA-strongholds in the area, such as three military camps on Saturday: Hamza, Yarmouk, and al-Sawarikh.
On Saturday, the Libya Observer reported that the foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey discussed “developments on the ground in Libya” over the phone last week, citing a statement released by the Russian foreign ministry last Thursday confirming the call. According to the statement, the two diplomats discussed the “the importance of the cessation of hostilities and a resumption of political dialogue, under the auspices of the U.N.”