Turkey the key to unlocking NATO help for EU naval operation
BRUSSELS (AP) - According to diplomats and officials in Brussels, Turkey is hampering the European Union's attempts to secure NATO aid for the Mediterranean bloc's naval operation to enforce a United States arms embargo against the conflict-ridden Libya.
The operation - called Irini, the Greek word for "peace" - started on April 1st. The European Council said it had "the implementation of the United States arms embargo through the use of air, satellite and maritime goods as its core task".
However, Turkey, a NATO member whose efforts to join the EU has stalled, suspects that Irini is focusing too much on the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli and not enough on rival forces commanded by Khalifa Hifter, who launched an offensive in April 2019 conquer the capital.
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Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 when a NATO-backed uprising overthrew leader Moammar Gaddafi, who was later killed. The country has since been divided between rival administrations in the east and west, each supported by armed groups and various foreign governments.
Hifter is supported by France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other important Arab countries. The Tripoli government led by Fayez Sarraj is supported by Turkey, which sent troops and mercenaries to protect the capital in January, as well as Italy and Qatar.
EU foreign policy official Josep Borrell said Tuesday that the bloc and NATO "are discussing how a new cooperation - not participation - cooperation agreement can be reached between Operation Irini and NATO, again in our common interest."
"I hope that this cooperation agreement can be concluded in the next few days," said Borrell, who will attend a video conference with NATO Defense Ministers on Thursday.
However, two NATO diplomats expressed doubts as to whether Turkey would allow such an agreement, and since the 30-nation military alliance works unanimously, NATO support cannot be guaranteed. The job descriptions of the diplomats do not allow them to speak about internal advice in the file.
When asked on Wednesday what the answer could be, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: "We are examining possible support, possible cooperation, but no decision has been made. There are dialogues, contacts that deal with these questions." He noted that NATO had supported the EU's previous naval operation, which had a different mandate than Irini.
So far, Turkey does not appear to be very helpful for the EU operation, and a recent incident shows the limitations of Irini, which has only two ships and three planes and needs more.
Borrell said Irini employees tried to contact a "suspicious" Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship that was escorted by two Turkish warships last week. He said the ship refused to respond, but its Turkish escorts said the cargo was medical equipment for Libya.
He said the staff contacted the Turkish and Tanzanian authorities to try to verify the information, and they also informed the United Nations. Borrell added that if Irini had not received an answer from one of the ships, other measures could have been taken. He refused to go into detail.
"Only in cases where the ship doesn't respond can we do a different kind of activity, we can do a little more," said Borrell. "There is nothing we can do but pass this information on to the United Nations. It is the United Nations that gathers this information to control the implementation of the arms embargo. "
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