This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Russia has confirmed the delivery of more MiG-29 fighter jets to Syria, just days after the U.S. military accused Moscow of using Syria to transfer warplanes to Libya.
The Russian Embassy in Damascus said on Twitter on June 3 that a “second batch” of advanced MiG-29 fighter jets were handed over to the Syrian military “within the framework of defense cooperation” and were already flying missions.
Syria’s SANA news agency reported on May 30 that a handover ceremony for “advanced and modernized MiG-29 fighter jets” was held at Russia’s Hmeimim air base in western Latakia Province and the planes would fly missions over Syria starting on June 1.
Russia, which has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with air power, and the Syrian government, have been accused by Western states, UN investigators, and human rights groups of indiscriminate bombing of civilians and possible war crimes during the country’s nine-year civil war.
The delivery comes after the U.S. military in late May accused Moscow of deploying military aircraft to Libya to provide support for Russian mercenaries helping a local warlord battle the North African country’s internationally recognized government.
U.S. Africa Command said 14 MiG-29 fighter jets and Su-24 fighter bombers were flown to Libya via Syria, where they were repainted at Hmeimim air base to disguise their identity.
Vagner Group, a private military contractor believed to be close to the Kremlin, has been helping Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east of the country in their fight against the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital, Tripoli.
A UN report earlier this month estimated the number of Russian mercenaries at between 800 and 1,200.
Moscow has denied the Russian state is responsible for any deployments of the Vagner group and denied sending aircraft to Libya.
The LNA has denied links to the aircraft, although it says it has refurbished some old Libyan planes and is preparing a new air campaign.
But on June 3, an LNA military source told Reuters that warplanes had struck near Gharyan, south of Tripoli, in the first acknowledged use of warplanes by eastern forces since Washington said Russia had supplied the new MiG-29 and Su-24 jets.
Libya has been torn by civil war since a NATO-backed popular uprising ousted and killed the North African country’s longtime dictator, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, in 2011.
The conflict has drawn in multiple regional actors, with Russia, France, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates backing Haftar’s command.
Turkey, which deployed troops, drones, and Syrian rebel mercenaries to Libya in January, supports the government in Tripoli, alongside Qatar and Italy.