Libya's Haftar threatens to target Turkish ships, interests

Libyan strongman's forces ordered to turn their sights on Turkey, who are backing the rival power in Tripoli.

BENGHAZI - Strongman Khalifa Haftar has threatened to attack Turkish interests in Libya after suffering a serious setback in his push to take the capital Tripoli, accusing Ankara of backing his rivals.

Anti-Haftar forces supporting Libya's internationally recognised government announced Wednesday they had retaken the strategic town of Gharyan in a surprise attack, seizing the main supply base for Haftar's months-long offensive.

Haftar on Saturday promised a "tough response" and accused militias backing the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord of executing his wounded troops at the town's hospital -- allegations refuted by both the GNA and authorities in Gharyan.

Dozens of pro-Haftar fighters were killed in the clashes some 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of the capital and at least 18 were taken prisoner by the GNA, a spokesman for the Tripoli-based government said.

In retaliation, Haftar ordered his self-styled Libyan National Army to target Turkish ships and companies, ban flights and arrest Turkish nationals in the country, his spokesman said.

General Ahmed al-Mesmari accused Ankara of "directly" intervening in the battle "with its soldiers, planes and ships".

He accused Turkey of assisting GNA forces to seize Gharyan, including providing air cover, and slammed the town's residents for "treason".

The LNA, which holds eastern Libya and much of the country's south, seized Gharyan on April 2, and two days later launched the offensive on Tripoli.

But their initial lightning advance was quickly brought to a standstill on Tripoli's southern outskirts as militias backing the GNA rushed to defend the capital.


Both sides accuse each other of using foreign mercenaries and receiving military support from foreign powers, despite a UN-imposed arms embargo on Libya enacted following the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that overthrew Moamer Kadhafi's regime.

Haftar has the backing of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt and accuses Turkey and Qatar of supporting the GNA.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently confirmed his support for the GNA, saying Ankara was providing weapons to Tripoli under a "military cooperation agreement".

He told reporters on June 19 the Turkish backing had allowed Tripoli to "rebalance" in the fight against Haftar.

On Saturday Erdogan, speaking on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan, said he did not have "any information" concerning Haftar's threat against Turkish assets.

"If there is an order like this from Haftar, my colleagues will study (it). We have already taken the necessary measures regarding this anyway, and after this, we will take much more different measures," he said.

Since the fall of Gharyan, Haftar's forces have carried out several air raids on Tripoli as GNA fighters push to keep up pressure on the LNA and cut their supply lines.

On Friday GNA militias claimed they launched another succesful offensive, this time in Esbiaa, more than 40 kilometres south of Tripoli.

But Mesmari said the attack was repulsed after a "very violent battle".

'Legitimate targets'

Mesmari said orders had been given to the LNA "air force to target Turkish ships and boats in Libyan territorial waters".

"Turkish strategic sites, companies and projects belonging to the Turkish state (in Libya) are considered legitimate targets by the armed forces," he added.

"All Turkish nationals on Libyan territory will be arrested," he said, and "all flights to and from Turkey will be banned".

Libyan airlines operate regular flights to Turkey from in Tripoli's Matiga airport and a second in the western city of Misrata, where forces back the GNA.

Mesmari did not explain how the flight ban could apply to areas not under Haftar's control.

Turkey maintains good relations with the GNA and is one of the few countries to have reopened its embassy in Tripoli after a spike in violence in 2014 saw most diplomatics missions shuttered.