Libya: Russia’s Wagner Group Set Landmines Near Tripoli

Beirut — ICC Prosecutor Should Investigate Use of Unlawful Mines, Booby Traps

New information from Libyan agencies and demining groups links the Wagner Group to the use of banned landmines and booby traps in Libya in 2019-2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The Wagner Group, a private Russian military security contractor with apparent links to Russia’s government, backed Khalifa Hiftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) in their attack on the Libyan capital, Tripoli. These mines killed at least three Libyan deminers before the mines’ locations were identified.

“The Wagner Group added to the deadly legacy of mines and booby traps scattered across Tripoli’s suburbs that has made it dangerous for people to return to their homes,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “A credible and transparent international inquiry is needed to ensure justice for the many civilians and deminers unlawfully killed and maimed by these weapons.”

Antipersonnel landmines, which are designed to be exploded by the presence, proximity, or contact of a person, violate international humanitarian law because they cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants. These victim-activated weapons kill and maim long after conflicts end.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), mandated since 2011 to investigate war crimes and other grave crimes in Libya, should examine the role of Libyan and foreign armed groups in laying antipersonnel mines during the 2019-2020 conflict. During his briefing to the United Nations Security Council in April 2022, the prosecutor reiterated that his office would make the Libya investigation a priority.

In August 2021, the BBC reported receiving an electronic tablet that had been left behind on the front lines in southern Tripoli and that they concluded belonged to a Wagner Group operative. The detailed information in the tablet suggests Wagner operatives played a role in placing antipersonnel landmines, the BBC said.

During a March visit to Tripoli, Human Rights Watch collected information from mine action groups that confirms that all 35 locations identified in the tablet were in fact mined, and that the Wagner Group was present in the mined areas at the time. Human Rights Watch also documented the deaths of three deminers attempting to dismantle some of these mines. The deminers did not have access to the tablet or the information contained in it.

Human Rights Watch met with demining agencies and groups responsible for surveying and clearing Tripoli’s southern suburbs. These included the Defense Ministry’s Libyan Mine Action Center (LibMAC), which coordinates demining efforts of humanitarian groups on behalf of the government, Libyan and foreign civic groups including Free Fields, and demining specialists from the Ministry of Interior’s Criminal Investigations Department.

The demining agencies and deminers provided Human Rights Watch with information that confirmed the BBC’s findings on the tablet and that indicates that these mines were not just known to the Wagner Group, but that they were most likely responsible for placing them. A mine clearance specialist, who was present when two of the three deminers were killed, said that they were dismantling a mine placed under a sofa at the time. The specialist said that after the data from the tablet was shared, he was among the team tasked with clearing the explosives in eight of the 35 locations. He was able to use the precise coordinates identified in the tablet and in some cases information regarding the types of mines used in these locations, to assist in this clearance work.

The specialist said he found mines or other explosive devices at all eight locations he was tasked with clearing. He said in some cases they still needed to be dismantled, while in others the explosives had already gone off. He also showed Human Rights Watch images of scraps of paper in Russian that he found during his clearance work in southern Tripoli in houses and other locations controlled by Hiftar-allied forces before their withdrawal. The papers include lists of names and apparent schedules for shifts, lists of injured personnel, and lists with locations or coordinates, including one labeled “enemy.”

The mines and booby traps found at the 35 coordinates were hidden inside homes and other structures, in some cases inside furniture and were often activated with a tripwire that was not visible. Mine experts told Human Rights Watch that the mines and booby traps apparently constructed by Wagner operatives were more sophisticated and lethal than those laid by Libyan, Sudanese, or Syrian groups.

According to LibMAC, of the 130 people killed and 196 injured in Libya between May 2020 and March 2022 by mines and other explosive ordnance, most were civilians in Tripoli’s southern suburbs. The victims were between 4 and 70 years old, and included 299 men and boys, and 26 women and girls. The sex of one victim is unclear. A total of 78 casualties – 24 percent of the total recorded by LibMAC – were deminers.

Mine action groups said that by June 2020, when Hiftar’s LAAF and allied forces including Wagner operatives withdrew from southern Tripoli suburbs after 14 months of fighting against groups allied with the former Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), they left behind many landmines and booby traps. These included at least four types of landmines that the mine action groups had not documented in Libya prior to this conflict, along with other victim-activated improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In addition, unexploded or abandoned ordnance contaminate some 720 million square meters (720 km²) in this area following the fighting.

On May 24, Human Rights Watch wrote to Russia’s foreign minister to present the organization’s findings and request information relating to the presence of Wagner Group operatives in Libya. Human Rights Watch asked the Foreign Ministry to clarify the military security contractor’s role during the 2019-2020 conflict and affiliations with the LAAF, and for a response to allegations that Wagner Group operatives placed banned antipersonnel mines in the southern Tripoli suburbs. The Russian authorities have not replied.

Human Rights Watch attempted to find contact information for the Wagner Group or its management to share the report findings, but was unable to do so.

All parties to Libya’s armed conflicts are obligated to abide by the laws of war, which prohibit the use of weapons such as antipersonnel mines and booby traps that cannot distinguish between military targets and civilians. The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty further prohibits the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of antipersonnel mines. The treaty also prohibits improvised victim-activated devices, including those made locally.

Libya should ratify the Mine Ban Treaty and commit to a comprehensive prohibition of use of antipersonnel mines, promote humanitarian mine action, and assist survivors, Human Rights Watch said. Libya should also grant access for a country visit to the UN Working Group on Mercenaries, pending since at least 2018, to enable it to get firsthand information on the impact of foreign fighters in Libya and identify challenges.

“Independent of an international inquiry, Libyan courts need to impartially investigate and appropriately prosecute commanders and fighters – including foreigners – for war crimes in Libya,” Fakih said.

Human Rights Watch is co-founder and chair of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 1997 Nobel Peace Co-Laureate.

Landmine Use and Demining in the 2019-2020 Conflict

The UN Libya Panel of Experts affirmed in a March 2021 report that private military operatives from the Wagner Group have been present in Libya since October 2018, assisting in the repair of military vehicles and participating in combat operations as well as extensive social media campaigns designed to support Hiftar and his ground operations known as “influence operations.” The Panel of Experts estimated that 800 to 1,200 Wagner Group operatives backed Hiftar’s forces in different observation, advisory, force protection, and combat roles. According to news reports, 200 Wagner Group operatives withdrew from Libya in April 2022.

The Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya (FFM), established by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2020 with a mandate to investigate violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law committed in the country since 2016, found in its October 2021 report that the LAAF and the Wagner Group “may have violated the international humanitarian law principle of proportionality as well as the customary international humanitarian law obligations to minimize the indiscriminate effects of landmines and to remove them at the end of active hostilities.” Unless renewed at the Human Rights Council, the mandate of the mission will expire in June 2022.

The electronic tablet left behind on the battlefield and provided to the BBC contained numerous Russian-language files and technical reference materials including maps of 35 coordinates that were labeled as locations of landmines and other explosive devices in Ain Zara, a southern Tripoli suburb. The tablet also contained around 130 diagrams of different types of mines and booby traps and instructions on emplacing them.

The maps indicated some of the type of mines placed in the mined area, which included the MON-50 and MON-200 directional fragmentation mines, and the OZM-72 bounding fragmentation mine. The maps were also labeled as “mined district” or “remote-controlled mine.” Libyan armed groups are not known to have used MON-50, MON-200, or OZM-72: these mines had not been identified in Libya before the 2019-2020 conflict.

The tablet also identified code names of fighters, one of which the BBC matched to a Wagner Group operative previously identified in a leaked UN report. The BBC said it believed the tablet belonged to a Wagner operative based on the data it contained and the location where it was found, one where Wagner operatives were known to have been based.

LibMAC told Human Rights Watch that in 2021 it conducted nontechnical surveys of the 35 locations listed in the tablet and found landmines and other explosive devices at all of them. These surveys are the starting point for identifying, accessing, collecting, and reporting on the location of landmines and explosive remnants of war. LibMAC then issued orders for clearance of the 35 locations to the Libyan demining group Free Fields.

Gen. Mohamed Al-Turjman, LibMAC’s director, said that the deminers that were deployed found that some of the mines or explosive devices had already exploded but that others were still active and needed to be cleared. He said three deminers were killed in two of these 35 locations: Khaled Hangar from the Defense Ministry’s Military Engineers, and two Free Fields specialists, Tarik Farhat and Hossam Bin Madi, on July 6, 2020. All three men were killed during clearance operations before the BBC’s reporting revealed the presence of the tablet.

A senior official at Free Fields, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that two of their staff were killed at one of the 35 locations by an OZM-72 mine.

The Russian government has previously denied any links to Wagner Group operations. In what appears to be the first acknowledgment by a senior Russian official of ties between the Wagner Group and Libyan authorities, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in an interview with an Italian news channel on May 1, said that the Wagner Group “provides security services” to Mali’s government and that “a private body has [also] been invited by the Libyan authorities on a commercial basis, like in Mali.”

Individuals who carry out serious violations of the laws of war – including use of antipersonnel mines – with criminal intent are responsible for war crimes. Those who commit, order, assist, or have command responsibility for war crimes in Libya are subject to prosecution by domestic courts and the ICC, which has a mandate over war crimes and other serious crimes committed in Libya since February 15, 2011.

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