Turkish cargo ship “shelled” off Libya coast, deepening rift between two countries

Libya Channel with Reuters

A Turkish ship’s crewman was killed and several others injured on Monday when it was struck by forces loyal to Libya’s recognized-government who claimed the vessel tried to approach Derna, an Eastern port and jihadi stronghold.

The third officer on the Cook Islands-chartered Tuna-1 vessel died and several of his collegues were wounded when the ship came under fire twice, according to the Turkish government who condemned the “contemptible attack”.

But the Libyan army maintained the Turkish vessel was only hit once after it broke agreed protocol. The dry cargo ship was just 16 kilometers off Libyan shores when it ignored warnings not to approach Derna, which has a ban on entry, military spokesperson Mohamed Hejazy told Libya Channel.

“After they did not heed our warning we fired bullets at the ship, ultimately killing the crew member,” Hejazy said denying reports that they had shelled the vessel.

“It is forbidden to dock ships in Derna,” Hejazy added, explaining that the security forces feared it was loaded with weapon supplies for the myriad jihadi groups that have taken over the town.

Tobruk-based Libyan businessman Ahmad Abulsalam Almaji, who was expecting the shipment, told Libya Channel that the vessel contained building materials not weapons and was due to travel to Tobruk and then on to the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

Although Almaji added he was not sure why the ship had abandoned the usual route and drifted so close to Derna.

The Turkish Foriegn Ministry maintained the ship was shelled as it approached the nearby Mediterranean port of Tobruk and then attacked from the air as it tried to leave the area.

“We condemn strongly this contemptible attack which targeted a civilian ship in international waters and curse those who carried it out,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that Ankara had protested to the authorities in Libya.

They did not point the finger of blame but said the ship was carrying plasterboard from Spain to Tobruk and was 21 km from its destination when it came under fire.

A Libyan military source said the vessel was on fire and being towed to Tobruk terminal. But a Turkish foreign ministry official denied this, saying it was returning to Turkey.

“Turkey approached the United Nations and the IMO (International Maritime Organization) in connection with the matter. A note was given to Libya’s Ankara embassy and Istanbul consulate seeking an explanation,” the Turkish official said.

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya “condemned” the attack and called for a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of the sailor.

It urged all military actors in Libya to “exercise caution” during their operations and “to undertake all necessary measures to avoid targeting civilians and civilian objects and facilities in the ongoing conflict.”

Libya’s rival administration, whose armed supporters took over the capital last summer, condemned the Turkish vessel shelling in a statement as an act of “terrorism” by General Khalifa Haftar who leads the military forces of the recognized government.

Internationally-recognized Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni said in February his government would stop dealing with Turkey because it was sending weapons to a rival group in Tripoli so that “the Libyan people kill each other”.

Turkey denies taking sides in the conflict, saying it supports UN-led efforts to broker a peace.

A Libyan warplane from forces loyal to Thinni’s government bombed a Greek-operated oil tanker anchored off Libya’s coast in January, killing two crewmen, amid hostilities between factions vying for power.

Attacks on foreign ships in waters near Libya may complicate European Union efforts to stop traffickers sending thousands of migrants to Europe in often unseaworthy vessels.

Thousands have drowned in the voyage and several EU nations have sent naval vessels to the region to try to stem the migrant influx. But Libyan officials have warned against any measure perceived as an attack on the country’s sovereignty.

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