Haftar forces legitimate targets if they attack Turkish troops in Libya, Defense Minister Akar says

Turkish army soldiers stand guard as Kurdish people wait in a hope to enter Cizre, a town subject to a curfew as part of a controversial operation against Kurdish rebels, on March 22, 2016 in Mardin, for Newroz celebration. Nowruz, the Farsi-language word for 'New Year', is an ancient Persian festival, celebrated on the first day of spring, March 21, in Central Asian republics, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran. / AFP PHOTO / ILYAS AKENGIN

Forces loyal to Libya’s Putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar will be seen as legitimate targets if they attempt to attack Turkish troops in Libya, Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Sunday.

“If they take such a step, they will be unable to find any place to flee to. Everyone should come to their senses,” he warned while referring to Haftar as a war criminal and murderer.

During his visit to Turkish troops in the war-torn country, Akar underlined the nearly 500-year historical and cultural ties between Turkey and Libya, saying Ankara cooperated with the Tripoli-based legitimate Government of National Accord (GNA) at a time when other global actors hesitated.

Noting that the U.N.-recognized GNA is the only legitimate government in the country, Akar said, “The putschist Haftar group and those who support him are the real problems in Libya.”

Akar said the 21 mass graves found in the city of Tarhuna again revealed Haftar’s massacres. “Unfortunately, the world continues its silent … But, we believe that the GNA will not let this crime against humanity go.”

He urged the international courts to continue their investigations into Haftar’s war crimes and hold him accountable for what he did.

Turkish support for the GNA helped stave off the April 2019 offensive by Haftar, who is mainly backed by Russia, France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Akar made a surprise trip to Libya on Saturday and met with senior Libyan officials during which the two sides underlined their bilateral cooperation, two days after Haftar urged his fighters to drive out Turkish forces from the oil-rich country.

Accompanied by Turkey’s Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler and other military commanders, Akar met with Libya’s Chairperson of the High Council of State Khalid Mishri, Defense Minister Salahuddin Namroush and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.

In his meeting with Bashagha, Akar said: “You have accomplished great things, I hope you bring all of these to fruition and our Libyan brothers continue to live in peace and security.”

For his part, Bashagha said he was pleased to host Akar and the Turkish military commanders, adding, “You are our brothers.”

The Turkish and Libyan officials agreed during the talks to “pursue their coordination in a bid to repel any hostile” action by Haftar that could destabilize Libya, a statement by Tripoli said.

Later Saturday, Akar attended a graduation ceremony in Tripoli for military cadets who were trained in Turkey as part of its cooperation with the GNA.

Turkey has backed the Tripoli-based, U.N.-recognized, legitimate GNA, sending military advisers, materials and mercenaries to quell an offensive last year by the illegitimate forces led by eastern-based Haftar. In November 2019, Turkey and Libya also signed pacts on security cooperation and maritime boundaries.

As part of Libya’s 2019 deal with Turkey on security cooperation, the Turkish military continues to train, cooperate with and provide consulting services to Libya. Ankara also has a large military base in the Al-Watiya region on Libya’s border with Tunisia.

Akar’s visit to Tripoli came after the Turkish Parliament last week adopted a motion extending the deployment of forces in Libya by 18 months.

Wracked by violence since 2011, the North African country has become a battleground for tribal militias, extremists and mercenaries while acting as a major gateway for desperate migrants bound for Europe. Two rival camps now vie for power, with an eastern-based administration backed by Haftar, pitted against the Tripoli-based GNA. In October the two sides struck a cease-fire agreement, which has been generally respected, setting the stage for elections at the end of next year.