Sponaugle was captured by the Libyan National Army (LNA), the military force loyal to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, allegedly after his Mirage F1 was shot down near capital Tripoli on May 7. The LNA said the man was conducting bombing raids against its troops on behalf of Libya’s internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and accused him of being a mercenary. The true identity of the pilot, who was previously reported as a Portuguese national, was first broken by the Washington Post and later confirmed by CNN.
Images of a bloodied Sponaugle were released by the LNA shortly after his capture, but at the time he was called a Portuguese national, named Jimmy Rees. According to the Post, Sponaugle enlisted as an airman in 2006 and worked as a mechanic until 2013. He then served in the Florida Air National Guard before retiring in late 2016. The newspaper says he didn’t have pilot training and that US officials are not sure what he was doing in Libya.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) captures 29-year-old Jimmy Reiss, a Portuguese mercenary pilot, who was flying a Mirage F1 warplane of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) before it was shot down by LNA this morning.#Libya #LibyaNews #LNA #GNA #Tripoli pic.twitter.com/LgSxvNA22R— The Libyan Address Journal (@LibyanAddressJo) May 7, 2019
Sponaugle was released from captivity with the help of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally, the report said, stressing that the Saudis did not pay for his release. On Tuesday, the American was flown to Saudi Arabia, where he is to meet US diplomatic officials and undergo medical examinations.
Task and Purpose gave a somewhat differing service record for Sponaugle, as well as a list of merits that indicates deployments to Iran and South Korea and involvement with the US Air Force’s nuclear deterrence operations.
Libya remains fractured since the 2011 NATO bombing campaign, which helped anti-government militants oust and kill longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi. Sponaugle was captured amid an offensive operation launched by Haftar’s forces in April. The general said he was trying to free the capital from militias destabilizing the country.
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