The drone was reportedly conducting a reconnaissance mission within the region amid ongoing clashes between Libyan factions fighting to seize control of Tripoli.
Fears have grown in recent weeks over the scale of Moscow’s involvement in the country’s civil war, which has been raging since 2014 and claimed thousands of lives, with Russian mercenaries said to be aiding commander Khalifa Haftar and his so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) in their attempts to capture the capital.
US army general Stephen Townsend, who leads Africa Command, has now voiced deep concern about Russia’s apparent presence in Libya as he demanded the return of the drone wreckage.
He admitted that those operating the air defences “didn’t know it was a US remotely piloted aircraft when they fired on it”, but added “they certainly know who it belongs to now”.
“They are refusing to return it,” Gen Townsend told Reuters. “They say they don’t know where it is but I am not buying it.
“This highlights the malign influence of Russian mercenaries acting to influence the outcome of the civil war in Libya, and who are directly responsible for the recent and sharp increase in fighting, casualties and destruction around Tripoli.”
US defence secretary Mark Esper declined this week to comment directly on the drone but said he believed Russia was trying to “put their finger on the scale” in Libya’s civil war to create a situation that was advantageous to Moscow.
An official in Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which serves as the country’s interim government under a UN-led initiative established in 2015, told the Reuters news agency that Russian mercenaries appeared to be responsible.
The US assessment meanwhile concludes that either Russian private military contractors or Haftar-led forces were operating the air defences at the time the drone was reported lost on 21 November, according to Africa Command spokesperson Christopher Karns.
Mohammed Ali Abdallah, adviser for US affairs in Libya’s GNA, said the US drone had come down near the pro-LNA stronghold of Tarhuna, 40 miles south-east of Tripoli.
More than 1,400 Russian mercenaries were deployed with the LNA, he added.
“Only the Russians have that ability – and they were operating where it happened,” Mr Abdallah told Reuters.
“It’s our understanding that Haftar was asked by his Russian partners to claim responsibility, despite not having the capability or equipment to shoot down a US drone.”
Mr Haftar, who claims to be fighting to rid Tripoli of Islamist-leaning armed groups, has also received support from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, according to diplomats and Tripoli officials.
Russian authorities deny using contractors in any foreign military theatre and say Russian civilians who may be fighting abroad are volunteers. The LNA denies it has foreign backing.
Additional reporting by Reuters