US flew captured Russian missile system out of Libya
On 28 January, The Times reported that a Russian air defense missile system was secretly flown from Zuwwara to a US air base in Germany. According to The Times, the covert operation was ordered due to concerns that the Pantsir S-1 missile battery could be held by a militia or arms smugglers. The missile system was sold by Russia to the UAE, who transferred it to forces aligned with the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Khalifa Haftar. The missile system was captured from the LNA at the Watiyya airbase in May 2020 and transferred to Zawiyya where it was seized by the militia commander Mohamed Bahroun, aka al-Far, ‘the Rat’.
Government of National Accord (GNA) Ministry of Interior forces later took control of the system and it was subsequently brought to Zuwara for collection by a US Air Force cargo plane. It is significant that the GNA Ministry of Interior took control of the missile system and arranged for its handover to the US authorities. Fathi Bashaagha, the GNA Minister of Interior, has been known for his profound efforts to cultivate relations with the United States, having been part of the US-Libya security dialogue launched in November 2019 and his desire to handover the third Lockerbie suspects and other measures. By securing this most recent coup, Bashaagha is likely to have been seeking to enhance his profile among the US intelligence community. At the same time, the fact that the missile system is reported to have been transferred by the UAE to Haftar’s forces feeds into disquiet in Washington about the UAE’s role in the region. The Biden administration has already paused a 23 billion USD arms sale to the UAE signed on Donald Trump’s last day in office. The US government is understood to be reviewing in the deal in light of the UAE’s breaches of the arms embargo in Libya, as well as its role in the war in Yemen.