Erdogan criticises EU move to enforce Libyan arms embargo

ANKARA, TURKEY (AP) — Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticised on Wednesday the European Union’s (UN) decision to launch a maritime effort focussed on enforcing the UN arms embargo around Libya, accusing European nations that agreed to the operation of “interfering in the region”.

Erdogan also hailed a decision by Libya’s UN-supported government — which he backs militarily — to withdraw from talks with rivals, following an attack on Tuesday on the sea port of the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The United States (US), 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. Instead, they’ll concentrate on implementing the UN arms embargo around Libya, which is routinely being flouted.

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 arms embargo in place since 2011. 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.”

File photo shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking to journalists at the Parliament, in Ankara, Turkey. PHOTO: AP

The Prime Minister of Libya’s Tripoli-based government Fayez Sarraj called for the arms embargo to include Libya’s air, land and maritime borders.

“Talking about maritime borders only is meaningless,” he told reporters on Wednesday while visiting Tripoli’s port after the attack.

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled longtime 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.

Erdogan’s “verbal attacks” on the EU and its new initiative were “unsurprising”, said a Libya expert at The Netherlands Institute of International Relations Jelal Harchaoui.

“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 (UAE) and Egypt, as well as France and Russia.

Hifter was in Moscow on Wednesday and met with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defence 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 normalising 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 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-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) 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.

He added that Turkey would continue supporting the Tripoli authorities to “establish dominance” over the whole of the country.