BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — Libya’s Benghazi-based forces claimed they seized a ship with Turkish crew members, as tensions in the eastern Mediterranean continue to rise over a contentious maritime border deal.
In a statement late Saturday, the self-styled Libyan National Army said a vessel flying a Grenada flag with several Turkish crew members had been forcibly taken into a Libyan port for inspection. But it remains unclear if the LNA’s move was indeed a seizure.
Libya is divided between rival governments. One is based in the eastern city of Benghazi, while a weak U.N.-supported administration holds the capital, Tripoli, and parts of the west. Both are supported by an array of militias and foreign governments.
The Benghazi-based LNA, led by commander Khalifa Hifter, has been trying to capture the capital since April.
A renewed LNA offensive on the capital threatens to plunge Libya into another bout of violence rivaling 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 some neighboring 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 the Tripoli government on Saturday, further angering the Benghazi-based administration. The deal allows Turkey to provide military training and equipment at Tripoli’s request.
The agreements have prompted a flurry of diplomatic attention. The U.S. State Department jumped in late Saturday, expressing “concern” over the Tripoli-based government’s request for Turkish military support, along with the “LNA’s threat to use foreign-supplied air assets and mercenaries” in its ongoing assault on the capital.
The U.S. statement warned that “external military intervention threatens prospects for resolving the conflict,” and urged all sides to refrain from any further escalations.
Responding to the State Department, the Tripoli government’s foreign minister stressed that the U.N.-supported government is Libya’s “legitimate and sole representative” Mohamed Sayala called for a “clear and open position” from Washington against Hifter’s advance on Tripoli.
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 the security agreement gives his country the right to send troops to Libya to help the Tripoli government counter the LNA, which is allegedly backed by Russian militia forces.
Al-Mihoub denied accusations that the LNA has received Russian military support. “We reject the foreign military intervention and any boots on the ground,” he said.
Libyan and U.S. officials have accused Russia of deploying fighters to Libya through a private security contractor in recent months. Moscow has repeatedly denied any role in the fighting.
Hifter’s LNA and the eastern government enjoy the support of France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries. The Tripoli-based government is backed by Italy, Turkey and Qatar.