Libyan fighters threaten to target Turkish interests

Pro-Tripoli militias say Turkey supplied them with armoured vehicles

Members of the Libyan internationally recognised government forces fire during a fight with Eastern forces, in southern Tripoli, Libya June 22, 2019. REUTERS/Yosri al-Jamal
Powered by automated translation

The forces of Libya's Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar said that Turkish ships and interests were "legitimate targets" in its battle to seize the capital Tripoli, after it accused Ankara of helping militias allied with the UN-supported government.

The eastern Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Haftar, already controls much of the country's east and south. It launched an offensive against the weak government in Tripoli in April.

The fighting has threatened to plunge Libya into violence on the scale of the 2011 conflict that removed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi and led to his death.

A spokesman for the LNA, Ahmed Al Mesmari, said on Friday that the country had "come under illegitimate Turkish aggression" in recent weeks.

"Turkey has become directly involved in the battle, with its soldiers, planes, ships and all the supplies that now reach Misrata, Tripoli and Zuwara directly," Mr Al Mesmari said.

He said Turkey had helped to push the army out of the town of Gharyan, about 100 kilometres from Tripoli. The town was a key supply route for Field Marshal Haftar's forces pushing towards the capital.

Turkish forces also bombed LNA sites and provided air cover for militias allied with the government to retake the town, Mr Al Mesmari said.

He said his forces have now been ordered to target any Turkish ships, sites or companies operating in Libya or its territorial waters, and to arrest any Turkish nationals in Libya.

Libyan officials said they had carried out heavy air strikes in retaliation against the fighters who retook Gharyan.

The government in the east, which is supported by Field Marshal Haftar, said LNA forces were killed after being captured in hospitals in Gharyan, a claim denied by Gharyan Governor Yousef Bediri, who is loyal to the Tripoli government.

Mr Bediri called on rights groups to investigate, saying the troops were killed earlier during the fighting.

Col Mohamed Gnono, a spokesman for the Tripoli government forces, said in Gharyan that troops captured more than 150 of Field Marshal Haftar's fighters and seized armoured vehicles, three drones and US-made weapons and missiles.

Last month, a Facebook page linked to the Tripoli government posted photos showing more than a dozen armoured vehicles arriving at port, without saying who supplied them.

Supporters of the militias allied with the government said the vehicles, which resemble Turkish-made Kirpi armoured carriers, were supplied by Ankara.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that he was unaware of the LNA's orders.

"If Haftar has given such an order we'll get that evaluated," Mr Erdogan said. He said Turkey had already taken "necessary" precautions.

He said in April that his government would stand by Tripoli authorities against the offensive launched by Field Marshal Haftar.

The UN-supported government condemned the commander's threats against Turkey's interests.

The Government of National accord, backed by Turkey, urged the UN support mission in Libya to have "clear positions" towards the comments by the LNA spokesman.

On Saturday, Mr Al Mesmari said air strikes would continue on Gharyan and outskirts of Tripoli.

He said LNA forces repelled attacks by militias allied with the government on the towns of Ain Zara and Wadi Al Rabie outside Tripoli, killing at least 26 militia men.

"Forensic reports showed that wounded in Gharyan hospitals were knifed, shot dead in their heads or rammed by cars," he said.

Field Marshal Haftar, who in recent years has been battling extremists and other militias across eastern Libya, says he is determined to restore stability to the country.