Italian Customs Seized Chinese Wing Loong II Drone Destined To Libya

Customs police in southern Italy have announced the seizure of an undeclared shipment of Chinese “war drones” bound for Libya in a weekslong sting operation reportedly coordinated with the help of intelligence from the United States.

Authorities in Italy’s Calabria region said on Tuesday that the bust of six containers from China at the port of Gioia Tauro uncovered the “fuselages and wings of drones intended for military use.”

The components, which had been disguised as wind turbine parts, could be assembled into two unmanned aerial vehicles each weighing over 3 tons, with a length of 32 feet and a wingspan of 65 feet, according to the joint statement issued by Italy’s customs agency.

Photographs released by the agency pointed to the equipment belonging to China’s Wing Loong II drone, which was first exported to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not immediately return a request for comment before publication.

China has significantly expanded its military drone development and exports in the past decade. Notable deals have been struck around the world for its Wing Loong series, but also its Rainbow and WJ drones.

The list of recipients includes Algeria, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Serbia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, meanwhile, are among the recipients of its Wing Loong drones, which reportedly landed in the hands of Libyan warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar. He controls the country’s east and parts of its south and has fought the U.N.-backed government in the capital of Tripoli since 2020.

Libya has been stricken by over a decade of civil war since the NATO-backed overthrow of the country’s late leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. A U.N. embargo prohibits the transfer of arms and military equipment to and from Libya’s Mediterranean ports.

The official acknowledgment of the container bust seemed to confirm a report last month by Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, which said the interdiction happened on June 18 “at the request of American authorities.”

U.S. intelligence suspected that the container ship MSC Arina, which left the port of Yantian in southern China in April, was bound for Libya’s eastern port of Benghazi, controlled by Haftar’s forces, the paper said.

The Times of London newspaper said on Sunday that Italian authorities were preparing to intercept a second shipment of three suspected containers over the weekend. This is part of a long-running probe that began with Canada’s foiling in April of an arms-for-oil deal run by Haftar’s men.

Haftar is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin of Russia and has in the past leaned on the now-defunct Wagner Group for aid.

Putin hosted the renegade commander at the Kremlin in September 2023, with one eye on expanding his military’s access to Tobruk, a port in eastern Libya, across the Mediterranean from the U.S. Sixth Fleet’s headquarters in Naples.

Last month, the U.S. State Department sanctioned the Russian state-owned company Goznak for allegedly printing over $1 billion in counterfeit Libyan currency, “which exacerbated Libya’s economic challenges.”

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