ANKARA - Turkey is beginning to send troops into Libya in support of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday, days before a summit in Berlin which will address the Libyan conflict.
Erdogan's announcement came as Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) which is affiliated with a rival government in the eastern city of Tobruk, said he was willing to abide by a ceasefire that he had previously refused to sign up to, according to Germany's foreign minister.
"General Haftar has made clear: he wants to contribute to the success of the Libyan conference in Berlin and is in principle ready to participate in it. He has agreed to abide by the ongoing ceasefire," said Heiko Maas after talks in Benghazi.
Last week, Turkey and Russia urged Libya's warring parties to declare the ceasefire. However, despite talks in Moscow aimed at halting Haftar's months-long campaign to seize the Libyan capital, the two sides were unable to reach an agreement when Haftar failed to sign the binding truce on Monday.
Sources close to the LNA said that Haftar had demanded a time limit for Islamist militias allied to the GNA to hand over their arms. He called for the formation of a joint committee including LNA and UN officials to oversee the disarmament, which would be carried out by the Libyan Armed Forces.
The LNA also reportedly demanded the deportation of foreign fighters from Libya, and rejected any Turkish mediation in future negotiations.
Turkey, which backs Fayez al-Serraj's Government of National Accord (GNA) and has been accused by Haftar of arming and financing militias in Tripoli, has previously said that it sent a training and cooperation team which is now active in Libya.
On Wednesday, an exclusive report published by The Guardian said 2,000 Turkish-backed mercenaries that had been fighting on Turkey's behalf in Syria have arrived or will soon arrive in Libya to fight alongside forces allied to the GNA.
On Thursday, Erdogan said Ankara was also starting the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya and that it would use all its diplomatic and military means to ensure stability to its south.
"In order for the legitimate government in Libya to remain standing and for stability to be established, we are now sending our soldiers to this country," Erdogan told an event in Ankara.
Erdogan warned on Tuesday that Turkey will not refrain from "teaching a lesson" to Haftar's eastern Libyan forces if their attacks against the GNA continue. The talks in Moscow were the latest attempt to stabilise Libya, which has been beset by turmoil since Muammer Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.
On Sunday, Germany will host a summit on Libya involving the rival camps, their main foreign backers and representatives from the United Nations, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Turkey and Italy.
Turkey and Libya signed two agreements in November, one on military cooperation and another on maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan said on Thursday that Turkey will quickly start granting licenses for exploration and drilling in the region, in addition to controversial drilling that is already occurring off the coast of the disputed island of Cyprus.
"In the areas that remain between Turkey and Libya, it is now legally impossible for there to be exploration and drilling activities or a pipeline without the approval of both sides," he said.
"After these licensing efforts, our Oruc Reis seismic exploration ship will begin its seismic research operations in the region," he added.
Greece, Cyprus and other regional actors have opposed the maritime accord, calling it illegal. Turkey has rejected the accusations. Analysts say the move to secure recognition from the GNA of Turkey's claims in the Mediterranean were an attempt to strengthen Ankara's negotiating position on Libya ahead of any peace talks to solve the country's political crisis.
But the move is also important with regards to Turkey's ire at being frozen out of numerous energy projects as Eastern Mediterranean states scramble to exploit recently discovered gas reserves in the region. One major dispute has centered on the EastMed pipeline deal between Israel, Greece and Cyprus.
Those countries say the maritime deal between Turkey and Libya is an attempt to rewrite the Exclusive Economic Zones of states in the Mediterranean, giving Turkey a greater say over future energy projects. The dispute stems from Turkey's military occupation of Cyprus - it is the only country in the world that recognises the breakaway Turkish "republic" in the northern third of the Mediterranean island.
Ankara believes its traditional rivals Greece and Cyprus are attempting to exclude it from the region's hydrocarbon boom. Turkey sees the maritime deal with Libya as an insurance policy at a time when the newly discovered energy reserves are suggesting potential shifts in the balance of power among Eastern Mediterranean states.
Haftar and his regional allies including the UAE and Egypt see Turkey's moves in Libya and the wider Mediterranean region as part of an aggressive "Neo-Ottoman" foreign policy pursued by the Erdogan government, which makes no secret of its support for political Islamism throughout the region.
This includes Ankara's support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organisation by both Cairo and Abu Dhabi. The GNA is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Haftar has accused his rival Serraj of being beholden politically to extremist militias.
Haftar says GNA ally Erdogan is a "deranged Turkish sultan" who wants to "colonise" Libya, which was part of the Ottoman Empire before coming under Italian occupation in 1911.