May 21, 2020 / 5:04 PM / 13 days ago

Threat to hit Turkey in Libya underscores risk of escalation

ANKARA/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Turkey warned on Thursday against any attacks on its interests in Libya by Khalifa Haftar’s forces after his Libyan National Army (LNA) threatened to respond to recent military setbacks by striking Turkish positions in the country.

FILE PHOTO: Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar meets Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias (not pictured) at the Foreign Ministry in Athens, Greece, January 17, 2020. REUTERS/Costas Baltas/File Photo

“In the event Turkish interests in Libya are targeted, this will have very grave consequences,” said Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy.

The LNA’s air force chief Saqer al-Jaroushi said in a video posted overnight on social media that “all Turkish positions and interests in all occupied cities will be targeted,” in what he said would be the biggest air operation in Libyan history.

The threat points to the growing risks of a wider escalation in Libya, where Turkey backs the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in a conflict against the LNA, backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

Turkish support has this week helped the GNA take an important airbase near Tripoli, gain control over towns in the west and destroy several Russian-supplied air defence systems.

It has raised questions over the LNA’s ability to sustain Haftar’s year long assault to capture Tripoli without a new injection of support from his external backers, analysts say.

On Thursday, the GNA and local residents said its forces had taken control of Asaba, a small town whose capture could put more pressure on the most important LNA stronghold left near Tripoli, the town of Tarhouna.

An LNA military source denied the town had been captured, saying fighting there continued. The LNA had also said on Wednesday it was pulling back from frontlines in Tripoli, but its forces withdrew only in some places leaving most of its positions intact.

Years of conflict have already wrought destruction upon much of the country, and Haftar’s year-long assault to capture Tripoli has resulted in months of often intense bombardment of residential areas in the capital.

On Tuesday, the acting U.N. envoy Stephanie Williams warned that the “massive influx of weaponry, equipment and mercenaries to the two sides” would “intensify, broaden and deepen” the conflict.

In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had spoken by phone on Thursday to back an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of the political process.

Peace making efforts in Libya have made little progress and the United Nations special envoy Ghassan Salame resigned in March, with no agreement yet on a successor.

The conflict has hampered efforts by both the GNA and a rival administration based in Benghazi that governs areas held by the LNA to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and medical facilities have repeatedly been hit by shelling.

Both the GNA and the Benghazi administration also face financial difficulties, with a blockade of oil exports by eastern-based forces preventing energy sales since January.

Reporting By Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi and Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow; writing by Angus McDowall in Tunis; editing by Alexandra Hudson

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