May 26 (UPI) -- U.S. Africa Command reported Tuesday that Russia has deployed a military fighter aircraft to Libya to support Russian-sponsored private military contractors there.
Russian military aircraft are "likely to provide close air support and offensive fires" for the Wagner Group contractors supporting the Libyan National Army's fight against the Government of National Accord, according to AFRICOM.
AFRICOM also reported that the aircraft arrived in Libya after they were repainted to disguise their Russian origin.
"Russia is clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya. Just like I saw them doing in Syria, they are expanding their military footprint in Africa using government-supported mercenary groups like Wagner," AFRICOM commander U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend said in a press release.
"For too long, Russia has denied the full extent of its involvement in the ongoing Libyan conflict," Townsend said. "Well, there is no denying it now. We watched as Russia flew fourth generation jet fighters to Libya -- every step of the way. Neither the LNA nor private military companies can arm, operate and sustain these fighters without state support -- support they are getting from Russia."
According to AFRICOM, Russia has used Wagner to "conceal its direct role" in Libya, affording Moscow plausible deniability for its involvement.
"If Russia seizes basing on Libya's coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial capabilities," said U.S. Air Force Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa. "If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe's southern flank."