Turkey's president Wednesday criticized the European Union’s decision to launch a maritime effort focused on enforcing the UN arms embargo around Libya, accusing European nations that agreed to the operation of “interfering in the region.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan also hailed a decision by Libya’s UN-supported government to withdraw from talks with rivals following an attack Tuesday on the sea port of the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The U.S., however, called for the talks to be resumed “quickly."
EU foreign ministers agreed earlier this week to end Operation Sophia, the bloc’s naval mission in the Mediterranean Sea, and launch a maritime effort focused more on implementing the UN arms embargo around Libya.
Operation Sophia was set up in 2015 as tens of thousands of migrants headed across the sea from North Africa to Europe. Its aim was to crack down on migrant smugglers, but also to enforce the 2011 arms embargo, which is routinely being flouted.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said several European countries had offered to take part in the new operation.
"I want to specifically mention that the EU does not have the right to make any decision concerning Libya," Erdogan said in a speech to legislators from his ruling party in parliament. "The EU is trying to take charge of the situation and interfere."
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. Relentless turmoil subsequently engulfed the oil-rich country, which is now split between rival governments based in its east and west, each backed by an array of foreign countries apparently jockeying for influence to control Libya’s resources.
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Erdogan’s “verbal attacks” on the EU and its new initiative were “unsurprising,” said Jelal Harchaoui, a Libya expert at The Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
“It will play well with Erdogan's constituencies inside Turkey," he said.
The UN-supported government in Tripoli is backed by Turkey and Qatar. On the other side are the eastern-based forces of commander Khalifa Hifter, which rely on military assistance from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia.
Hifter was in Moscow on Wednesday and met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The parties “noted the important role” of talks that took place in Moscow on January 13 in “implementing a ceasefire and starting the process of normalizing the situation in the country.” The statement also reiterated the need to comply with decisions made during a Berlin peace summit last month.
In the Berlin conference, world powers and other countries with interests in Libya’s long-running civil war agreed to respect the much-violated arms embargo, hold off on military support to the warring parties, and push the sides to reach a full cease-fire.
The UN special envoy to for Libya, Ghassan Salame, however has accused some countries of stepping up weapons deliveries to Libya's warring sides in hopes of a military victory.
Fighting between the country’s factions has intensified over the past year. Along with weapons, Turkey recently sent hundreds of Syrian fighters, including militants affiliated with groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, to fight on behalf of the Tripoli-based government.
The Turkish leader also voiced support for Tuesday's decision by the Tripoli-based government to suspend participation in UN-brokered talks in Geneva, following an attack by Hifter's forces on Tripoli's port.
“It is the right decision," Erdogan said.
He added that Turkey would continue supporting the Tripoli authorities to "establish dominance" over the whole of the country.
Hifter’s forces claimed they hit a weapons and ammunition depot at the port on Tuesday “to weaken the combat capabilities of the mercenaries who arrived from Syria” to fight alongside Tripoli-allied militias.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Richard Noland met Wednesday with Mustafa Sanalla, head of Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation, expressing “the U.S.’ deep concern” over the port's attack.
The U.S. urged all parties to commit to the military talks in Geneva, which “should be resumed quickly in order to achieve progress towards the long-waited cease-fire, and the withdrawal of foreign forces and mercenaries," he said in a statement.
The UN-brokered talks between Libya's warring sides had resumed earlier on Tuesday in a bid to salvage a fragile cease-fire in the North African nation. The current cease-fire was brokered by Russia and Turkey on January 12 to deescalate the fight for control of Tripoli, but both sides have repeatedly violated the truce.