BRUSSELS - EU leaders met the head of Libya's UN-recognised government on Wednesday as they scramble to contain the escalating crisis on their southern flank amid concerns about illegal migration and terrorism.
Libya is currently governed by dueling authorities, in the east and the west, each relying on different militias and with its own set of institutions. The east-based government is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt, as well as France and Russia. The western, Tripoli-based government receives aid from Turkey, Qatar and Italy.
Fayez al-Sarraj, whose beleaguered Government of National Accord is facing an offensive by the rival forces who control the country's east, met EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell, who earlier cautioned that Libya was facing a "watershed point".
Borrell's warning came after General Khalifa Haftar's forces - who have support from the UAE, Egypt and Russia - seized control of the coastal city of Sirte as part of his drive to take Tripoli and oust the GNA.
As well as Borrell, Sarraj met the EU Council President Charles Michel and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who a day earlier took part in emergency talks on Libya with his French, British and Italian counterparts.
"The situation is very dangerous," warned Borrell, who on Tuesday condemned Turkey for "interference" in the Libya conflict. Michel is due in Turkey this weekend for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey’s parliament authorized the deployment of troops to Libya last Thursday, following a separate deal on sending military experts and weapons signed into law in December.
Ankara says it has sent 35 Turkish troops who are carrying out training and coordination tasks to support the GNA, insisting they will not take part in any fighting.
But there are also reports of a potential deployment of Turkish-backed mercenaries, comprised of ethnic Syrian Turkmen fighting on Ankara's behalf in northern Syria, to further bolster the militias allied to the GNA and "rebalance" the opposing sides in Libya's war. Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), with its superior aerial capabilities and support from regional powers, has so far held the advantage in military capability.
Haftar has sought to rally support against what he calls a Turkish "invasion" of Libya. He has cast Erdogan as a "deranged sultan" who wants to "colonise" Libya, in reference to the Ottoman Empire which controlled Libya until it was taken over by Italy in 1912.
Libya has been plunged into chaos since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising that killed longstanding dictator Moamer Gaddafi, and is now divided between the GNA and Haftar's rival authorities based in the country's east.
Tensions escalated last year when Haftar launched an offensive to capture Tripoli, helped by the UAE and by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group, which is headed by a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin - although Moscow denies this.
The EU is keen to stop the conflict spiralling out of control, fearing that terror groups such as the Islamic State could exploit the instability to launch attacks and concerned the turmoil could lead to more migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean.
The conflict in Libya, however, has exposed some rifts among EU states. France has sided with Haftar, while Italy and other states support Serraj and the GNA, which they view as the legitimate, internationally recognised government after it came to power in a UN-brokered power-sharing deal.
The conflict is taking place against a larger political backdrop in which Turkey, and its regional ally Qatar, are open in their support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The GNA counts a number of Brotherhood-affiliated militias among the forces supporting it in Tripoli.
The Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist group by Ankara's Arab rivals the UAE and Egypt. Turkey's fierce rivalry with the military government in Egypt - which neighbours Libya - is especially seen as a significant motivating factor behind its planned deployment. The Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was violently overthrown by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2013.
The turmoil in Libya after Gaddafi's long rule was toppled has in recent years disrupted the OPEC member's oil production, fuelled migrant smuggling to Europe, and given space to Islamist extremists.