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Waves of Russian and Emirati Flights Fuel Libyan War, U.N. Finds – The New York Times

A confidential report sent to the Security Council details extensive breaches of the international arms embargo on Libya by eight countries since the beginning of the year.

Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Declan Walsh

CAIRO — As war raged in Libya last winter, a dozen world leaders gathered in Berlin to talk peace. The contradictions surrounding the conference were no secret: Many of the global leaders who pledged to end foreign meddling in Libya’s conflict were themselves fueling it.

Even so, few expected the hypocrisy would be so blatant.

As leaders posed for a group photo with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Jan. 19, having signed a pledge to respect the arms embargo on Libya, at least five cargo airplanes filled with weapons from the United Arab Emirates and Russia were cruising across the skies of North Africa, bound for the battlefields of Libya.

Details of the secret, embargo-busting flights are contained in a confidential report to be presented to a panel of the Security Council on Friday. Such breaches are nothing new in Libya, where even U.N. officials call the embargo a “joke.” But the sheer scale of violations so far this year, combined with the volume of advanced weaponry now circulating inside the country, are a cause of growing international alarm.

Using flight data, ship records and other tools, investigators show that egregious violations by leaders who flout the embargo with seeming abandon have reached new levels.

Four of the cargo planes bound for Libya on Jan. 19 had been sent by the United Arab Emirates, whose leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, smiled as he lunched with Ms. Merkel in a luminous room just before the peace conference. Along with Russia and Egypt, the Emirates is backing the Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter in the war.

The fifth plane that day belonged to Russia — one of nearly 350 Russian military supply flights in nine months that have swelled its force of Russian and Syrian mercenaries to over 5,000 fighters, according to the latest American estimates.

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Credit…Pool photo by Alexei Nikolsky

The United Nations report, which was seen by The New York Times and confirmed in interviews with officials, comes at a time of intense political instability in Libya, prompting fresh warnings that the country could plunge into a new, even more destructive round of battle.

“Libya is indeed at a decisive turning point,” the acting United Nations envoy to Libya, Stephanie Williams, warned the Security Council in a briefing on Wednesday.

Libya descended into chaos in 2011 after the ouster and killing of the longtime dictator Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. Since then it has been divided between two administrations, in the east and west of the country, backed by rival foreign powers.

A 14-month campaign by Mr. Hifter to capture Tripoli ended in failure in June but drew Russia and Turkey more deeply into the war. With oil production halted, the bedraggled economy has sunk further, and living conditions are deteriorating rapidly for Libyans who have endured long electricity cuts in the summer heat.

Much of what comes next, though, may be determined by the war’s foreign sponsors who, according to the United Nations investigators, have transformed the conflict into a vast proxy war, one cargo plane at a time.

The recent escalation started in January when Turkey intervened forcefully, sending drones, air defense systems and thousands of Syrian mercenaries to back the besieged Tripoli government.

Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt responded by flooding military aid to Mr. Hifter’s forces, in what quickly turned into a giant, undeclared military airlift.

Investigators counted 339 Russian military flights between Nov. 1 and July 31, mostly from Hmeimim air base in Syria, with a potential volume of up to 17,200 tons. The flights supported mercenaries employed by the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked private military company that has become a crucial element in Mr. Hifter’s forces.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has repeatedly denied any Russia intervention in Libya.

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Credit…United States Africa Command

But the Russian airlift has intensified through the year, from eight flights in December 2019 to 75 in July, even after the collapse of Mr. Hifter’s Tripoli campaign in June — a sign, according to several Western officials, of Russia’s growing stake in the conflict.

As fighting gave way to a stalemate centered on Surt in recent months, Russian mercenaries have moved into position around several of Libya’s biggest oil fields.

The report also focuses on the United Arab Emirates, which sent a further 35 military cargo flights to Libya in the 11 days after the Berlin conference in January, and another 100 or so in the first half of the year, many of them using three charter airlines registered in Kazakhstan.

Many of those aircraft turned off their transponders — tracking devices that identify their positions — as they entered Egyptian or Libyan airspace. But efforts to disguise the military supply flights were largely cursory.

Some of the flight manifests carried suspiciously vague descriptions of their cargo, claiming to be carrying frozen food, men’s suits or a consignment of 800 boilers, investigators said. Others were filled out in the name of the 4th aviation group of the U.A.E. armed forces.

Three of those airlines stopped flying in May when Kazakh authorities suspended their licenses after receiving international complaints. The Emirati military stepped up to fill the gap, using its American-built C-17 Globemaster cargo planes to “maintain the airbridge,” running 60 direct flights up to July 31, the report says.

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Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Since September 2019, the Emirates has also been recruiting Sudanese mercenaries to fight under Mr. Hifter in dubious circumstances. Investigators found that recruits had been hired to do private security work by a firm named Black Shield, then forced into military training and sent to fight in Yemen or Libya.

“These individuals were hired under false pretenses and forced into military training camps,” the report said.

The U.A.E. government failed to respond to several letters from the investigators seeking information or comment about its activities in Libya.

On the other side of the war, the report also accuses Turkey of extensive embargo violations. In early June, three attempts by European Union naval vessels to interdict a Turkish cargo ship bound for Libya were rebuffed by Turkish warships. Turkey claimed the cargo ship was carrying “humanitarian aid.”

Other Turkish military supplies arrive in western Libya aboard civilian airliners flying from western Turkey. “It is almost impossible to book a seat on any of these flights,” the report notes. “The flights are not for fare-paying passengers.”

The report also notes the return of Qatar to the war. American officials say that Qatar largely stopped funding Islamist groups in Libya during the Obama administration, under pressure from the United States.

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Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But in May and June at least five Qatar Air Force cargo flights landed in Libya, the report notes. More recently, Qatar’s defense minister visited Tripoli alongside his Turkish counterpart in a pointed show of solidarity.

In an interview, a senior Western diplomat confirmed that Qatar has resumed funding to the Tripoli government.

Libyan civilians have particularly suffered in the intensity and confusion of a sprawling proxy war.

United Nations investigators have evidence that an Emirati warplane carried out an airstrike against a refugee center in Tripoli that killed at least 42 people in July 2019, mostly migrants.

Human rights groups and the United States military accuse Russian mercenaries of planting land mines and booby-traps as they retreated from the Tripoli suburbs in June. The bombs have killed at least 61 people and wounded 113, Ms. Williams, the U.N. envoy, said on Wednesday.

A Kremlin spokesman dismissed the American accusations as “crazy talk.”

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giant waves

Giant waves of sand are moving on Mars – Science Magazine

Megaripples near a sand dune on Mars.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

By Katherine Kornei

Researchers have spotted large waves of martian sand migrating for the first time. The discovery dispels the long-held belief that these “megaripples” haven’t moved since they formed hundreds of thousands of years ago. They’re also evidence of stronger-than-expected winds on the Red Planet.

It’s pretty staggering that humans can detect these changes on Mars, says Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory who was not involved in the research. “We can now measure processes on the surface of another planet that are just a couple times faster than our hair grows.”

Megaripples are found in deserts on Earth, often between dunes. Waves in the sand spaced up to tens of meters apart, they’re a larger version of ripples that undulate every 10 centimeters or so on many sand dunes.

But unlike dunes, megaripples are made up of two sizes of sand grains. Coarser, heavier grains cap the crests of megaripples, making it harder for wind to move these features around, says Simone Silvestro, a planetary scientist at Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics in Naples.

Since the early 2000s, Mars rovers and orbiters have repeatedly spotted megaripples on the Red Planet. But they didn’t seem to change in any measurable way, which led some scientists to think they were relics from Mars’s past, when its thicker atmosphere permitted stronger winds.

Now, using images captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Silvestro and his colleagues have shown that some megaripples do creep along—just very slowly.

The researchers focused on two sites near the equator of Mars. They analyzed roughly 1100 megaripples in McLaughlin crater and 300 in the Nili Fossae region. They looked for signs of movement by comparing time-lapse images of each site—taken 7.6 and 9.4 years apart, respectively. Megaripples in both regions advanced by about 10 centimeters per year, the team reports in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. That’s about how fast megaripples move in the Lut Desert of Iran.

It’s a surprise that megaripples move at all on Mars, says Jim Zimbelman, a planetary geologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum. Just a few decades ago, there was no evidence that sands on Mars were mobile, he says. “None of us thought that the winds were strong enough.”

Winds on Mars might be accelerating small grains of sand, Silvestro and his colleagues suggest. Once these grains start to roll or bounce, they can act like battering rams, knocking into larger grains and setting them in motion. This process, known as impact-driven creep, has been observed on Earth.

Sand dunes on Mars likely donated their grains to the megaripples’ migration, the team concludes, because nearby dunes moved in the same direction as the megaripples.

Atmospheric models of Mars suggest winds capable of moving sand are rare. This discovery of migrating megaripples will force those models to be revised, the team suggests.

Silvestro plans to expand his search for migrating megaripples to the whole planet. He suspects the speediest megaripples will be near Mars’s fastest moving dunes. Megaripples on the move are beacons of windy conditions, which might in turn kick-start dust storms, the researchers suggest. Airborne dust can blanket solar panels, reducing their efficiency, and it can also gum up mechanical parts like gears. That’s bad news for Mars rovers and human habitats alike.

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