Turkey condemned on Tuesday the interception of one of its ships by eastern-based Libyan forces in the Mediterranean, saying it must be allowed to resume its journey to western Libya and warned of possible reprisals.
“Targeting Turkish interests in Libya will have grave consequences, and these elements [who target Turkish interests] will be viewed as legitimate targets,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.
Forces loyal to eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar intercepted a Turkish ship off the North African country’s coast and towed it to the port of Ras al-Hilal, east of Benghazi, the general’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) said on Monday.
LNA general Ahmed al-Mismari said the vessel was sailing under a Jamaican flag and heading to the western city of Misrata – hundreds of miles from where it was captured.
Turkey has been the main international backer of the UN-recognised, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which Haftar is trying to topple by force.
Mismari said the ship did not respond to calls inquiring about its identity as it entered a militarily restricted area of Libyan territorial waters.
“The ship’s crew is made of nine Turks, seven Indians and one Azerbaijani sailor. It is being investigated for its violations of maritime laws and regulations,” Mismari added in a statement.
He did not reveal what the ship was carrying. In a Facebook post, Mismari showed photos of crew members in blue and orange overalls having their passports inspected by LNA members.
The capture of the ship came weeks after the country’s warring factions signed a ceasefire agreement to allow negotiations to end the conflict.
Libya descended into chaos after a Nato-backed armed uprising toppled longtime autocrat Muammar Gaddafi. Haftar, backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, has taken over most of the eastern part of the country.
But an LNA-led offensive that started late last year to capture Tripoli has largely faltered amid fierce resistance from the GNA and its allies.
At a news conference earlier on Monday, Mismari accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of arming “militias” on the frontlines despite the truce.
“We voice grave concern about what Turkey is doing in transporting weapons and mercenaries and terrorists to Libya,” he said.
Both Ankara and Abu Dhabi have been accused of violating an arms embargo in Libya to back opposite sides of the war.
Last week, Washington issued a rare rebuke of the UAE, saying that Abu Dhabi was funding Russian mercenaries fighting alongside Haftar’s forces.
Western governments officially support the GNA, but Tripoli has accused European leaders of covertly backing Haftar.
In a phone call with Haftar last year, US President Donald Trump praised the rogue commander for “ongoing counterterrorism efforts to achieve peace and stability in Libya”, according to a White House statement.