Suspect claims of Wagner mercenaries withdrawing from Libya
Despite LNA statement that Wagner mercenaries left in January 2021, recent construction projects raise additional questions.
While the spokesperson for Libyan National Army (LNA) General Khalifa Haftar has denied the presence of Wagner mercenaries in the Libyan city of Sirte, surfaced photos cast his denials into doubt.
According to an October 2020 agreement signed in Geneva, Wagner forces were supposed to leave within 90 days, starting January 1, 2021. In late January, photos of alleged Russian mercenaries in Sirte appeared online. Additionally, photos of leaflets in Arabic and Russian appeared urging the Russian soldiers to withdraw. Lastly, satellite imagery showed that large dug-out fortifications have been recently constructed in areas where Wagner forces were the most active. All of these clues cast doubt on the LNA spokesperson’s statements that Wagner mercenaries have left the country.
On October 23, 2020, the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) signed a ceasefire agreement in Geneva. This agreement was considered an important milestone in bringing both sides closer toward a resolution of the Libyan conflict. The agreement stemmed from a dialogue that was carried out by five military officers representing each side that started back in February 2019, known as the 5+5 Joint Military Commission.
The agreement resulted in two main outcomes impacting the long-term security situation in the country. First, both sides agreed to withdraw their troops from the frontlines to their respective camps. Second, the sides agreed that all mercenaries and foreign fighters would leave Libya three months from the signing of the agreement. The latter is especially important, as the country has mercenaries fighting on the side of the LNA, most notably the infamous Russian Wagner mercenaries.
According to the agreement, the mercenaries were required to leave Libya’s naval, land, and air territory by January 2021. Rumors that the mercenaries would stay in Libya past the agreement date appeared throughout January 2021 as open-source evidence started showing up online. Ahmed Mesmari, the official spokesperson for the LNA, declared on February 1 that there were no signs of remaining mercenaries in Sirte, in response to the surfaced photos. He claimed the agreement was being honored by the LNA side.
Recent reports, however, suggest that Russia has sent additional mercenaries to Libya as late as February 5, 2021. Russian military air traffic between Chkalovsky and Benghazi airbases had been reported in January, albeit the purpose of this traffic is unknown.
Open-source clues casting doubt on these official denials consisted primarily of two types of visual evidence: surfaced photos and satellite imagery.
Some of the first photos suggesting that Wagner mercenaries were still in Libya surfaced as early as January 29, 2021. These photos first appeared in Arabic, and later in English. In a series of photos, two men dressed in camouflage are shown standing somewhere in a small grocery shop. An accompanying post claimed that the picture was taken in Sirte, a city along the central Libyan Mediterranean coast.
صور لافراد من مرتزقة فاغنر في مدينة #سرت على بعد كيلومترات من خطوط التماس و بعد مضي 6 ايام من انتهاء المهلة المنصوص عليها في اتفاق 5+5 لوقف اطلاق النار و الذي بموجبه يتعيّن خروج المرتزقة الاجانب و مغادرتهم البلاد #انتصرت_طرابلس#سرت_تعود#لن_نعود_للقيود#ليبيا pic.twitter.com/SSEkqpN9co
— المركز الاعلامي لعملية بركان الغضب (@BurkanLy) January 29, 2021
These photos lacked basic geolocation details for their location to be confirmed. Nonetheless, a number of details in the photos suggest that the men pictured may be Wagner mercenaries. Specifically, both individuals are holding Russian AK rifles. The man standing further away is dressed in a type of camouflage that has been previously identified in photos featuring Wagner soldiers in Libya. Additionally, a drink called Tiger, seen on the top of the soft drink fridge, is a brand common in Libya. Reverse image search did not find any similar photos to have been posted before.
An additional set of photos appeared on February 8, accompanied by claims that Wagner mercenaries had been spotted in the town of Houn, south of Sirte, just outside the Al-Jufra airbase. According to the tweet, the location of these photos was next to the “General Committee for Defense, and on the opposite side is the former Martyrs Administration” (translated from Arabic).
صور | عنصران من مرتزقة فاغنر في شارع التأمين المؤدي إلى اللجنة العامة المؤقتة للدفاع سابقاً، و يظهر في الجهة المقابلة سياج إدارة الشهداء سابقا بهون والذي أصبح مقرا تحتله ميليشيا العاديات التابعة لحفتر#طرابلس #ليبيا pic.twitter.com/IKvR4jkxYi
— قناة فبراير (@FebruaryChannel) February 8, 2021
The DFRLab checked the location of these photos, geolocating them to central Houn, in a neighborhood of governmental buildings. The time at which these photos were taken could not be determined, but they had not been posted publicly before February 8.
Additional open-source evidence surfaced as satellite imagery. On January 22, satellite images surfaced suggesting that large trench systems were dug by Wagner troops near Sirte. According to the tweets accompanying the images, the approximate location of these trenches are 70 kilometers south from Sirte, along the road.
The DFRLab geolocated these structures and investigated historical satellite imagery. The defensive structures appear to have been under construction since August 2020, and additional construction can still be seen through late December 2020. By January 2021, the project appears to have slowed down and has done only minor improvements from January to March. But imagery revealing a project of this scale does suggest that Wagner mercenaries were actively constructing defensive trenches in Libya throughout the time they were supposed to be preparing to leave the country.
Additionally, another structure was located north of Brak Al-Shati air-base, where Wagner mercenaries were also reported to be operating. The purpose of this structure is unknown, but judging by the shape of the construction area, it resembles a shooting range. This structure was erected between November 2020 and January 2021, no significant developments were noticed later on.
Lukas Andriukaitis is an Associate Director with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Cite this case study:
Lukas Andriukaitis, “Suspect claims of Wagner mercenaries withdrawing from Libya,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), April 27, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/suspect-claims-of-wagner-mercenaries-withdrawing-from-libya-27ab71764e60.
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