Abduction and release of Egyptian intelligence unit points to proxy fighting in south Libya and early July meeting in Khartoum

The Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) announced that they secured the release of an Egyptian military patrol unit abducted by an unidentified militant group in southern Libya, according to a Monday press release.

A few hours later, the Egyptian Armed Forces released its own statement addressing the matter.

Tamer al-Rifai, Egypt’s military spokesperson, stated that Egyptian-Sudanese military cooperation had led to the “liberation” of the Egyptian force, but he did not provide further details.

In its statement, the NISS stated that Sudanese security forces conducted a special operation early on Monday to free the Egyptian unit, made up of one Egyptian officer and four soldiers. The NISS also released pictures of the soldiers on its official Facebook page later that day.

However, an intelligence officer with the self-styled Libyan National Army, a key military ally to Cairo, sheds more light on the issue. According to the officer, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, the missing Egyptian unit was on an intelligence patrol mission on the Libyan side of the border in mid-July and accidentally drove into the Sudanese side, where they encountered the Chadian militia who kidnapped them.

“This operation symbolizes an intelligence and political victory for the Sudanese government. The Egyptian soldiers were basically on an intel gathering mission focused on Sudanese military activity with armed Libyan groups. Having the Sudanese discover the mission and go further to rescue the detainees is a big blow,” says the officer.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited Sudan on July 19, a visit that was set to take place in October, according to an Egyptian diplomat, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. According to the source, the visit was moved up after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir insisted on conducting direct negotiations over the captured soldiers with Sisi in Khartoum.

The source adds that Bashir reiterated his request that Cairo dispel Sudanese opposition figures from Egyptian soil in return for the liberation of the Egyptian unit.

In early July, Egypt barred Sudanese opposition figure Sadiq al-Mahdi, the head of the Sudanese National Umma Party and an opponent of the Sudanese regime, from entering the country, according to a statement released by the party.

Sudan’s government accused Mahdi in 2014 of conspiring with armed rebels, a charge that could carry the death penalty, initially leading him to seek refuge in Cairo.

Mahdi returned briefly to Sudan in 2017, but he traveled back to Cairo earlier this year, after becoming leader of a wider opposition bloc. He was returning from a trip to Germany in July when Egypt refused to allow him reentry.

Egyptian-Sudanese relations have been beset by tension since last year, primarily due to Egypt’s hosting of Sudanese opposition figures, Sudan’s lack of support to Egypt in the negotiations over the Grand Renaissance Ethiopian Dam and the fight over the Halayeb Triangle territory between the two countries. These tensions led to Sudan recalling its ambassador from Cairo in January, a decision that was retracted two months later.

Meanwhile, Cairo was not confident that Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army forces would be able to liberate the unit, given the limited geographical access it has in Kufra, according to the Egyptian diplomat.

The Kufra region of southeastern Libya, where the Egyptian unit was on a patrol mission, includes the area covered by the Libyan-Sudan-Chad triangle and is a hotbed for proxy militias from Libya’s neighbors and tribal conflict. Sudanese and Chadian armed groups have been in southern Libya since at least 2013. Some of these militias support the LNA, while others support its rivals based in Misrata, nominally loyal to the Government of National Accord.

Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the University of Paris 8, whose work is focused on the international dynamics of the Libyan conflict, argues that Sudan’s decision to liberate the Egyptian intelligence patrol fits into its Libya policy, a policy that runs to counter both the Egypt-LNA alliance and, at the same time, shore up international legitimacy.

“Since 2015, there have been really two faces to Sudan. One is pro-Tripoli, pro-Misrata, against Haftar and — importantly — against Egypt owing to ideological, territorial and water disputes. There exists also another aspect to Sudan, which is shrewd and pragmatic, looking to build respectability on the international scene,” says Harchaoui.

“If Khartoum went to great lengths to make sure the abducted Egyptian troops got released, the gesture would definitely fit into this wider political agenda,” the researcher adds. “Sudan has the flexibility and plenty of incentives to act in such a magnanimous manner when it is perceived to be in the interest of the regime.”

According to an April 2018 report by Washington DC-based think tank Jamestown, the Chadian groups known to be fighting in the area include the Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad, the Conseil du Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République and the Rassemblement des Forces pour le Changement. The Sudanese groups are all from Darfur, and include the Justice and Equality Movement, the Sudan Liberation Movement – Unity and the Sudan Liberation Army. The latter two attempted to return to Darfur in 2017 but were defeated by units of the Sudan Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

“There are many non-state armed groups present in the southeast of Libya, including Justice and Equality Movement units, Sudan Liberation Movement units, but also more opportunistic, less ideological Sudanese militias looking to simply make money there, almost regardless of what that involves,” Harchaoui says.

The proxy fighting sits alongside tribal conflict, that pits the Zuwaya tribe against the Tebu, whose homeland stretches across southern Libya, northern Chad, northwestern Sudan and northeastern Niger. There is long-standing friction between the two communities, as the Zuwaya were only able to take possession of Kufra in 1840 by driving out the Tubu.

The 2017 UN Panel of Experts on Libya report described these groups as an “increasing threat.” Sources interviewed by the UN panel state that one branch of the Sudanese Liberation Army has 1,500 fighters in Libya, and not just Kufra. One former Justice and Equality Movement commander, Abdallah Jana, is known to operate with a convoy of at least 70 vehicles, and the Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad claimed to have 700 fighters in Libya as of December 2016. According to the UN report, this number could have increased to between 1,000 and 1,500 fighters.


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