Libyan air force attacks Turkish ship
Tensions between Turkey and Libya’s internationally recognized government are escalating to open animosity. Tuna-1, a freighter owned by a Turkish company registered in the Cook Islands, was hit on the evening of May 10 en route to Tobruk by Libyan government forces off the coast of Derne. Ilker Buyukdere, one of the 15-man crew, was killed and five others of Turkish and Georgian nationalities were wounded.
“We strongly denounce this heinous attack towards a civilian ship in international waters and we condemn those who carried out the attack,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.
The Turkish navy dispatched two frigates to bring the ship to Turkey.
The Libyan air force command attached to the Tobruk-based government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni announced it had hit the ship 10 miles (16 km) off the coast because it hadn’t heeded warnings not to approach Derne. “The Turkish ship violated our borders and was hit because it continued to sail despite our warnings,” said Sakr al-Jeroushi, commander of Libya’s air force.
On May 5, the Tobruk government declared a ban on navigation by all naval vessels including fishing boats between Raps el Tin, east of Derne, and Raps el Hilal, west of Derne. The Thinni government, which accused Turkey of sending weapons to some groups in Libya, had earlier decided to expel all Turkish companies working in Libya.
The Turkish version of the attack on the ship owned by Tuna Holding and operated by Bergen Maritime is somewhat different. Turkey says the attack came without warning. Tuna-1’s operations chief Refik Yeginer said, “They might have issued a warning in their language. Not everyone can speak Arabic. If they had even mentioned the name of our ship, our crew would have moved away to an appropriate distance.”
A government source dealing with the Libya issue in Ankara told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “That was a deliberate attack. I spoke at length with the captain. The problem is this: The captain says, ‘We were not warned. They fired rockets when we were 10 miles off the coast. We sent out alarm signals. Greece, France and Malta responded. I declared we were not carrying military ammunition. But the firing did not stop. We moved further away from the coast. But 10 minutes later, this time they attacked us from airplanes. We moved to 17 miles’ [27 km] distance from the coast, but they attacked us for the third time. They targeted the engine room and crew quarters.’ These targets were chosen specifically to sink the ship. The ship was carrying construction supplies to a Tobruk-based company.”
What are Turkey’s options? Ankara does not intend to retaliate in kind, but to react through diplomatic channels, to demand compensation and to exert pressure through international mechanisms.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry emphasized the attack was not at the 10-mile point but at 13 [21 km] — that is, in international waters. A ministry statement read, “We have strongly protested before the relevant Libyan authorities this heinous attack. We have demanded that all actions threatening the security of this ship and other Turkish ships that may be sailing in the region should end immediately, and the necessary legal procedures against the authors of this attack should be carried out. We reserve all our rights, including to compensation stemming from international law within the scope of the attack toward the ship in question.”
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that appropriate warnings have been made and protest notes have been delivered to the Libyan Embassy in Ankara and Libyan Consulate in Istanbul. “We are taking action at the International Maritime Organization,” he said. “We have also instructed our permanent representative at the UN. UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon was informed. They attacked a commercial freighter without any warning and just as it was approaching the coast. They could have checked the ship themselves, investigated and did whatever necessary, but to put the ship under artillery fire from the coast is a barbaric move.”
The government source added that the Turkish government will not take commensurate action to hit the Tobruk side. He said, “We have always stood by the Libyan people and will continue to do so.”
Asked why the attacked happened, the source said there may have been political motives, explaining, “The proposal UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon has tabled to solve the crisis between Tobruk and Tripoli governments fully favors Tobruk. Tripoli rejects it. Turkey thinks that this proposal is not seeking a lasting peace. Britain thinks like Turkey as well. The Tobruk government believes that the sole international supporter of the Tripoli government is Turkey. They think that if Turkey withdraws its support, then the Tripoli government will have to accept Leon’s proposal. This attack on the ship might be a pertinent message to Turkey. But there is another angle: The Thinni government wants to persuade the Tripoli side by using Turkey’s influence because they see that their country is heading to civil war. Moreover, they have to conclude the reconciliation process before Oct. 16, when the tenure of the government ends. They fear that if the process is not completed by then, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, the commander of Operation Dignity, will seize the government. That is why they want Turkey to intervene and persuade the Tripoli government. This may also explain why Mohammed al-Dairi, the foreign minister of the Tobruk government, has asked for a meeting in Ankara.”
Emrullah Isler, Turkey’s special envoy to Libya, explained Turkey’s policy, saying, “Turkey will maintain its contacts in good will with all the parties to bring an end to the crisis.”
Turkish officials believe that the Tobruk government is under the control of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. There are even some who interpreted the attack as an “indirect message from Sisi to Turkey.”
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in February, Thinni had named Turkey, along with Qatar and Sudan, as being responsible for the lack of security and stability in Libya.
That accusation was followed by Thinni’s government canceling all contracts with Turkish companies. This decision affected mainly the towns of Tobruk, Beydam, Ecdebiye, Zintan and Zawiye, controlled by the Tobruk government. In Tripoli, Misrata and Beni Walid, all controlled by the Tripoli government, which defies Tobruk’s decisions, there is no threat to Turkish companies. Regardless, some Turkish companies had to withdraw because of clashes.
What gave rise to accusations that Turkey has been sending weapons to Libyan groups? In January 2013, in a ship sailing from Turkey to Libya that had to take refuge in Greece’s Port of Volos because of heavy storms, hunting rifles, other weapons and ammunition were found. That incident raised questions of whether Turkey was shipping weapons. That same month, there were reports that Mohamed Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia, was wounded in Benghazi and evacuated to Turkey, where he died in a hospital. This, too, prompted questions about Turkey’s relations with the radicals.
Ankara officials insist that Turkey is not sending weapons to Libya and is not taking sides. But to believe that Turkey is not taking sides, one has to ignore the repeated demarches of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan favoring the Tripoli government and arguments voiced by Turkey favoring Tripoli when explaining the roots of the crisis in Libya.
Savas Genc, the chairman of the international relations department of the Fatih University, gave an assessment to Al-Monitor relating the renewed anti-Turkey sentiments in Libya to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s unconditional support to the Muslim Brotherhood, the key element of the Tripoli government. Genc explained that the AKP government had taken the side of the Muslim Brotherhood as it strove to become a player in Syria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring and ignored all democratic actors. In a way, Turkey lost all its gains in a single dice toss, Genc said. “That ship was hit because of Ankara’s position solely on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood instead of universal democratic values,” he said.
Genc recalled that Erdogan has openly supported the Tripoli government against the Tobruk government, saying, “The vast majority of the regional population accuses Ankara of intervening in the domestic affairs of Libya. My interviews with Libyan intellectuals are not at all promising for Turkey. Attacking a Turkish ship is the reflection of the hatred felt for Ankara. Turkey, whose border crossings were blown up, whose plane was shot down, now for the second time is seeing a civilian ship attacked after the Mavi Marmara. Turkey has been focused on a foreign policy goal that is way above its economic capacity. Apart from one or two Gulf countries, the AKP government has lost most of its credibility.”
In the light of all this, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that it wasn’t just a Turkish ship that was hit by Libya, but Turkey’s biased foreign policy.