ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey's president criticized on Wednesday the European Union’s decision to launch a maritime effort focused on enforcing the U.N. 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 U.N.-supported government — which he backs militarily — 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. Instead, they'll concentrate on implementing the U.N. 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."
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 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 U.N.-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 Jan. 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 U.N. 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 U.N.-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.
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.
Ahmed al-Mesmari, spokesman for Hifter forces, said they welcome all initiatives that could lead to peaceful solution the citizens in the regions of the Tripoli-based government.
“But, there is no peace, no cease-fire with the extremist terrorist groups and the Turkish,” he said at a news conference in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The Tripoli-based government said the attack killed at least three civilians and wounded five others.
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 U.N-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 Jan. 12 to deescalate the fight for control of Tripoli, but both sides have repeatedly violated the truce.
Libya’s coast guard intercepted around 200 migrants and returned them to Tripoli hours after the city’s main port was heavily shelled on Tuesday, the U.N. migration agency said in a statement.
The International Organization for Migration called for an “alternative safe disembarkation mechanism for migrants” returned to Libya.
“Libya cannot wait," said IOM Libya Chief of Mission Federico Soda. "It is time for concrete action to ensure lives rescued at sea are taken to ports of safety, and to end the system of arbitrary detention.”
At least 1,700 migrants have been intercepted or rescued and returned to Libya since the beginning of 2020, the IOM said. Those migrants often land in detention centers rife with abuses and mistreatment.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser reported this story in Ankara and AP writer Samy Magdy reported from Cairo. AP writer Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.