Libya’s Hifter frees Turkish sailors

Six Turkish sailors were released by forces loyal to the east Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter Monday following a cascade of events that have both changed dynamics on the nation’s front lines and highlighted Ankara’s growing role in the ongoing conflict.

Hifter, who leads the Libya National Army (LNA) and controls much of the country’s eastern and southern regions, launched an offensive in April on Tripoli, the seat of UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Following months of intense fighting, a surprise defeat on Wednesday forced Hifter’s troops to retreat from a key front-line position on the outskirts of Tripoli.

Furious, Hifter ordered a “harsh response” to the loss while accusing Turkey of supplying his rivals with armed drones, weapons and military vehicles. The LNA imposed a ban on commercial flights from Libya to Turkey as well as a blockade on Turkish ships docking in the country. Then on Sunday, LNA forces destroyed an armed Turkish drone stationed in Tripoli’s Mitiga airport and detained six Turkish citizens in an unprecedented escalation between Hifter and Ankara.

By Monday afternoon, the Turkish citizens were released, but only after the Turkish Foreign Ministry warned Hifter his forces would become “legitimate targets” if the sailors were kept hostage. Now observers are monitoring the rising tensions between Hifter’s forces and Ankara, with many pointing to the recent events as more evidence of a growing proxy war being carried out Libyan soil, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backing Hifter in the east, while Turkey and Qatar back the UN-recognized government in the west.

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