Libya's forces based in the country's east say they have seized a ship with Turkish crew members amid tensions in the eastern Mediterranean over a contentious maritime border deal involving Tripoli and Ankara.
The development comes as Turkey recently increased its backing for Libya's UN-supported government, based in the country's west, in the capital of Tripoli. In Libya's protracted conflict, that administration is a bitter rival to the east-based one. Libya is divided between the two sides, each supported by an array of militias and foreign governments.
In a statement late Saturday, the self-styled Libyan National Army — which backs the east-based administration — said a vessel flying a Grenada flag with several Turkish crew members had been forcibly taken into a Libyan port for inspection. However, it remained unclear if the move was indeed a seizure.
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The self-styled army and its commander, Khalifa Hifter, have been trying to capture Tripoli since April. The offensive threatens to plunge Libya into another bout of violence, the scale of the 2011 conflict that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Turkey and Libya’s Tripoli-based government signed a maritime agreement last month, drawing international outrage and concern from several Mediterranean countries. The deal gives Turkey access to a contested economic zone across the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Turkey’s parliament also approved a security agreement with Tripoli on Saturday, allowing Turkey to provide military training and equipment at Tripoli's request, further angering the east-based administration.
The U.S. State Department late Saturday expressed “concern” over both the Tripoli government’s request for Turkish military support and the self-styled LNA’s threat to enlist “foreign-supplied air assets and mercenaries” in its assault on the capital, saying such actions threaten "prospects for resolving the conflict” and urging all sides to refrain from any further escalations.
Responding to the State Department, the Tripoli government's foreign minister, Mohamed Sayala, stressed that the UN-supported government is Libya's "legitimate and sole representative” and urging Washington to show “clear and open position” against Hifter’s advance on Tripoli.
Tripoli's maritime agreement with Ankara has alienated even traditional European supporters. Greece, a longtime rival of Turkey, expelled Libya's ambassador and on Sunday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias visited Benghazi, the seat of the east-based administration and Hifter's LNA.
A statement from the meeting quoted Dendias as criticizing the security deal as a “threat to the unity of Libya and to the entire region.”
After leaving Benghazi, Dendias made a stop at the Cairo airport, where he held talks with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, later on Sunday, according to the Egyptian foreign ministry.
A senior lawmaker in the Benghazi parliament told The Associated Press that the Turkish agreements are “a provocation” to neighboring Arab and European countries.
“This will prolong the conflict and threaten North African nations ... to spread chaos in the region," said Talal Al-Mihoub, chairman of the parliament's defense and national security committee.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey could send troops to Libya if the Tripoli government formally asked. "If needed, we will increase the military aspect of our support for Libya," Erdogan declared again on Sunday.
Libyan and U.S. officials have accused Russia of deploying fighters to Libya through a private security contractor, something Moscow denies.