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Turkey sent between 3,500 and 3,800 paid Syrian fighters to Libya over the first three months of the year, the US Defense Department’s inspector general concluded in a new report, its first to detail Turkish deployments that helped change the course of Libya's war.
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The report comes as the conflict in oil-rich Libya has escalated into a regional proxy war fueled by foreign powers pouring weapons and mercenaries into the country. The US military has grown increasingly concerned about Russia’s growing influence in Libya, where hundreds of Russian mercenaries backed a campaign to capture the capital, Tripoli, in the country's west.
The quarterly report on counterterrorism operations in Africa by the Pentagon's internal watchdog, published Thursday, says Turkey paid and offered citizenship to thousands of mercenaries fighting alongside Tripoli-based militias against troops of east Libya-based commander Khalifa Hifter.
Despite widespread reports of the fighters’ extremist links, the report says the US military found no evidence to suggest the mercenaries were affiliated with the Daesh extremist group or Al Qaeda. It says they were "very likely” motivated by generous financial packages rather than ideology or politics.
The report covers only the first quarter of the year, until the end of March — two months before a string of Turkish-backed victories by the Tripoli forces drove Hifter’s self-styled army from the capital’s suburbs, its stronghold at Tarhuna and a key western airbase.
The latest report says the Turkish deployments likely increased ahead of the Tripoli forces’ triumphs in late May. It cites the US 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, the inspector general adds.
Khalifa Haftar has threatened to attack Turkish interests in Libya after suffering a serious setback in his push to take the capital Tripoli, accusing Ankara of backing his rivals.
The government has also transferred a number of wounded to Tunisia, Turkey, Italy and Ukraine for medical treatment, said Tarek Al Hamshiri, the head of the government forces' Field Medical Centre.
Libya’s internationally recognised government and Turkey have signed an agreement on maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean Sea that could complicate Ankara’s disputes over energy exploration with other countries.
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