A secret US commando mission to Libya has been revealed after photographs of a special forces unit were posted on the Facebook page of the country’s air force.
Libya’s air force said 20 US soldiers arrived at Libya’s Wattiya airbase on Monday, but left soon after local commanders asked them to go because they had no permission to be at the base. It was unclear if another branch of the Libyan military had authorized the mission.
Pentagon sources confirmed to US media that the special forces unit was part of a mission sent this week, but it was unclear if the soldiers had left the country.
The Facebook post that revealed the unit’s presence said the 20 soldiers had disembarked “in combat readiness wearing bullet proof jackets, advanced weapons”.
The photographs show the Americans – three with assault rifles slung over their shoulders – posing in the sunshine with Libyan soldiers. Other photographs show the US troops boarding a blue and white-striped passenger plane and driving a yellow dune buggy.
Wattiya’s proximity to Sabratha, site of the Islamic State’s western Libya base, has heightened speculation that the US is poised to launch strikes on the terror group.
The incident marks the first confirmed deployment of American special forces to Libya since July last year, when Delta Force commandos seized Ahmed Abu Khattala, now on trial in New York accused of the 2012 killing US ambassador Chris Stevens.
“They were there, [local commanders] said they were on a training mission,” said one source in the nearby mountain town of Zintan. “Nobody knows details. They are gone now.”
Wattiya is one of the largest air bases in Libya, dating from the era of Muammar Gaddafi who was deposed in the 2011 revolution.
Only open desert separates it from the Isis base at Ajaylat, outside Sabratha, the base that Tunisia says trained Sousse beach gunman Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi.
Libya has been split between two rival governments since Libya Dawn, a coalition of Islamist and Misratan forces, seized Tripoli, and the elected government fled to the eastern city of Tobruk.
The US’s deployment to Wattiya may affect the civil war, because the base is the hub for operations by the recognised government, based in Tobruk, against forces of rival Libya Dawn, which holds Tripoli.
Libyan jets based there have staged airstrikes against Dawn forces, who have launched unsuccessful offensives to capture the sprawling base.
In recent weeks, French and US reconnaissance flights have flown over Sabratha and Isis bases further east at Sirte, Benghazi and Derna.