ROME — Italy has seized Chinese military drones disguised as wind turbines that were heading to Libya in violation of a U.N. embargo, Italian authorities said.

Components making up the two drones were concealed in six containers sent on two container ships from China to the Port of Gioia Tauro in Italy, where they were impounded before they could be loaded onto vessels heading for Libya, according to officials.

“The components were hidden among composite material replicas of wind turbine blades to conceal them and avoid checks,” Italian tax police and customs officials said in a statement. One of the drones featured the slogan “The energy saving world” written along its side.

The drones were heading for Benghazi under orders from Gen. Khalifa Hifter, the military strongman controlling eastern Libya, sources told Defense News on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The U.S. spotted the shipment and tipped off Italian authorities, the sources added.

A U.N. embargo prohibits the sale of armaments to Libya, which has been racked by civil conflict since the downfall of former ruler Col. Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Each drone was more than 10 meters (33 feet) long, with a wingspan of about 20 meters (66 feet) and a weight exceeding 3 tons, according to Italian authorities. The description matches reports by sources that the drones were Chinese Wing Loong II unmanned aerial vehicles.

In 2020, when Hifter was seeking to conquer Tripoli and take over western Libya from a U.N.-backed administration, he had the support of the United Arab Emirates, which reportedly sent that drone variant to Libya. Observers claimed the UAVs were involved in the killing of 26 cadets during a missile attack at a Tripoli military academy. The UAE denied involvement.

The seizure at the southern Italian port followed a Canadian police operation in April, which led to charges for two Libyan men living in Canada with conspiracy to buy Chinese drones with Libyan crude oil. Fathi Ben Ahmed Mhaouek and Mahmud Mohamed Elsuwaye Sayeh were former employees of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency based in Montreal.

Hiftar, who was once on the CIA’s payroll, has been forging ever-closer ties to Russia, allowing the country in recent months to unload thousands of tons of military equipment at Tobruk port in eastern Libya as it seeks to supply Russian operations across Africa.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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