Turkey sent up to 3,800 fighters to Libya in early 2020, Pentagon says

The U.S. Defence Department said Turkey sent between 3,500 and 3,800 mercenaries to fight in Libya over the first three months of the year, Associated Press reported on Friday.

The figures are stated in a quarterly report on counterterrorism operations in Africa by the Pentagon’s internal watchdog published Thursday.

The Pentagon said Turkey has paid and offered citizenship to thousands of mercenaries fighting alongside the Tripoli-based, United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) against the forces of eastern-based rebel General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which is backed by Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, among others. 

The U.S. military found no evidence to suggest the mercenaries were affiliated with Islamic State or al-Qaida, despite widespread reports of their links to radical Islamist and jihadist groups, according to the report.

The report said the fighters were most likely motivated by financial packages, rather than ideology or politics.

The report only covers until the end of March, two months before the Turkish-backed GNA won a series of significant battlefield victories against Haftar’s forces; forcing them to retreat from Tripoli’s suburbs and from key strongholds at Tarhuna and al-Waiya air base.

The Pentagon said Turkish deployments likely increased ahead of the Tripoli forces’ victories in late May. 

It cited the U.S. Africa Command as saying that 300 Turkish-supported Syrian rebels landed in Libya in early April. Turkey also deployed an unknown number of Turkish soldiers during the first months of the year, it added.

The report comes as the Libyan conflict has escalated into a proxy war with foreign powers pouring weapons and mercenaries into the country. 

The Pentagon said in its last quarterly review that Russia had sent hundreds of mercenaries to back Haftar’s siege of Tripoli. 

The Wagner Group, a private Kremlin-linked military company, sent snipers and armed drones to Libya last autumn, the Pentagon said.

This year, in response to Turkey’s shipments of battle-hardened Syrians, Wagner increased its deployment of foreign fighters, also including Syrians, with estimates ranging from 800 to 2,500 mercenaries. 

The GNA’s forces have recent been mobilising around the edges of Sirte, a key strategic city for Libya’s oil industry. 

On Friday, the GNA-controlled National Oil Corporation warned that a “large number” of LNA-allied Syrian, Sudanese and Russian mercenaries are occupying oil installations, AP reported.