BBC report finds Turkey violated Libya arms embargo

Turkey has long been seen as among the most flagrant violators of the UN arms embargo on Libya.

LONDON - A BBC News report released on Thursday has found that Turkey violated a United Nations arms embargo on Libya only days after pledging not to at a UN conference in Berlin, sending a ship loaded with arms to the Libyan capital of Tripoli amid ongoing fighting for control of that city between the country's warring parties.

The results of the BBC investigation, which included analysis of satellite images and footage obtained by its reporters, came on the same day as the European Union agreed to launch its new air and naval mission to enforce the arms embargo on Libya by the end of March.

Ambassadors from the 27 EU countries approved the mission, dubbed Operation Irini after the Greek word for peace, after clearing last-minute objections.

Greece has agreed to be the landing point for any migrants rescued in the course of the mission, though its primary purpose is to enforce the embargo. The fate of migrants picked up during the course of the mission had been a major sticking point, with EU states extremely anxious over the number of refugees and migrants attempting to reach Europe from Turkey.

An effective arms embargo is seen as crucial to stabilising Libya, where the UN-backed Tripoli government - supported by Turkey - is battling the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who controls much of the country's south and east.

Turkey is not the only country involved in Libya's conflict. Qatar is also allied to the Tripoli government, while the UAE, Egypt and Russia are among the main players backing Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA).

Turkey, however, has long been seen as one of the most flagrant violators of the UN arms embargo and has frequently been accused of meddling in Libya's internal affairs. It has even transferred paid mercenaries that fought on its behalf in the Syrian War to Libya, to shore up an array of militias - including Islamist and extremist groups - fighting on behalf of the Tripoli government.

According to satellite images obtained by the BBC, a Lebanese-flagged ship called the Bana set sail from the Turkish port of Mersin on January 24, under the pretense of sailing to Tunisia, before switching off its transponder off the coast of Libya on January 27 and disappearing from tracking systems.

Satellite images from January 28 showed three ships sailing in waters to the northeast of Tripoli, with the one in the middle being identified as the Bana. The other two ships escorting the Bana were identified as G-Class frigates, which are currently only used by the Turkish navy, according to the BBC.

The satellite imagery showed the ship docked in Tripoli before heading for the Italian port of Genoa, where - according to the BBC - a sailor provided Italian authorities with information as to the ship's role in facilitating arms transfers between Turkey and Libya. The captain of the ship, a Lebanese national, was then arrested by Italian police on suspicion of attempting to influence the crew's testimony and concealing evidence.

The informant who spoke to the Italian authorities also requested political asylum. There were reportedly 10 Turkish military officers escorting the shipment on the Bana, who had told the crew to declare that the stop in Tripoli was due to a mechanical problem.

The BBC cited a Twitter video in its investigation, posted on January 30, which it said was "allegedly filmed in the hold of the Bana" and shows "a series of weapons, including these armoured combat vehicles, cannons, self-propelled howitzers, and this anti-aircraft gun."

The BBC report said investigators ascertained that the video posted on Twitter was indeed the Bana by cross-referencing the video with photographs taken on board the ship and obtained by BBC Africa Eye, which the BBC website describes as an "investigative strand" of the BBC focusing on "high-impact investigations from across Africa".

The date that the Bana sailed from Mersin on its way to Tripoli, January 24, was only five days after the Berlin Conference on January 19 in which the major power brokers in Libya - including Turkey - met under UN auspices to pledge that they would "unequivocally and fully respect" the UN arms embargo on Libya that was introduced in 2011.

But the commitments made in Berlin, including to return to the political track for finding a solution to the conflict, have not even come close to being realised. Serious warfare resumed in Tripoli this week after a comparative lull in recent weeks, defying international calls for calm to allow Libya's fragmented and overstretched health system to prepare for a potential spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Diplomacy has foundered, with the latest round of talks in Geneva making no progress towards a political solution last month, and the UN envoy resigning for health reasons. Before he quit, he warned that the arms embargo on Libya was being routinely violated, with foreign weaponry and fighters arriving in the country to join both sides.