A coalition of forces allied with Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), some of which face UN sanctions, received a shipment of Turkish armored vehicles and arms on Saturday. The shipment arrived amid the GNA’s efforts to stop the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, from advancing toward the capital, Tripoli.
Pictures and videos posted by the coalition on its Facebook pages showed what appeared to be dozens of Turkish-made BMC Kirpi armored vehicles in Tripoli port.
“The GNA is fostering its forces defending Tripoli with armored vehicles, ammunition, and quality weapons,” the pro-GNA coalition said on one of its Facebook pages, without giving further details about the origin of the military equipment.
The cargo ship “Amazon,” flying a Moldovan flag, publicly unloaded its cargo midday on Saturday at one of the wharfs of the Tripoli seaport. The vessel had sailed from the northern Black Sea port of Samsun, Turkey.
Its cargo included a shipment of around 40 armored vehicles of Turkish origin that came from northern Turkey. These were met at the port by forces loyal to Salah Badi, leader of the powerful al-Samoud militia, which has in the past opposed the GNA and any political solution in Libya. Badi was added to a UN sanctions blacklist last November.
Later on Saturday, there were also reports and pictures posted on the Facebook page of another radical Tripoli militia – the Marsa Brigade – of machine guns, sniper rifles, and anti-tank and aircraft missiles, freshly wrapped in crates, with the suggestion that these had also formed part of the Turkish cargo and had been distributed to frontline militia fighters defending Tripoli.
Meanwhile, a Turkish drone was reportedly shot down by the LNA last week, leading to warnings from the national army’s leadership that Turkey was sending weapons to Libya.
The UN has been monitoring for an uptick in Turkish military support for Tripoli militias ever since the GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, who founded the Marsa Brigade, made a lengthy visit to Ankara earlier this month.
Bashagha, who is increasingly being seen by GNA insiders as the real power in Tripoli rather than Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, is from Misrata – a Libyan city with strong historical links to Turkey.
Earlier this month, a Tripoli government spokesman said his administration was talking to its ally Turkey to obtain “anything that is needed to stop the assault,” including military and civilian help.
“If correct, this is extremely concerning as it could lead to an escalation of violence and more civilian casualties,” one UN source said.
However, a Libyan media activist based in Turkey who posted pictures of the cargo arriving explained that the move was justified in order for the GNA to “defend themselves against the attack.”
Asked if Bashagha had arranged for the shipment of military equipment, he replied, “Fathi Bashagha has responsibility, but there are other people unknown to the world who are also on the ground.”
The armored vehicles – which are according to experts the BMC Kirpi vehicles or “Hedgehogs” used by the Turkish army – were publicly offloaded in a show of defiance by forces loyal to Badi and displayed on the Facebook page of al-Samoud.
Experts said that defensive military equipment like the armored vehicles could theoretically be allowed into Libya without breaching UN sanctions, but that this would be unlikely given hostilities.
Badi himself was hit by the UN with a travel ban and asset freeze for his role in stirring up violence in Tripoli. The capital was gripped by violence throughout last summer as extremist militias challenged the GNA’s authority.
A statement posted by the British Foreign Office detailing the reasons for his sanctioning said, “Salah Badi… has worked consistently to undermine a political solution in Libya. In August and September 2018, Badi played a leading role in heavy clashes in Tripoli in which at least 120 people were killed, most of whom were civilians.”
Instability in Tripoli and the role of militias backed by Turkey and other countries is one of the reasons put forward by Haftar for trying to take over Tripoli, according to the LNA spokesman.
Links between the militias in Tripoli to more extremist Islamic groups, such as the outlawed terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia as well as al-Qaeda and ISIS, have also become increasingly apparent in recent weeks.
This week saw the fourth attack by ISIS against the rear guard of LNA forces in the south of Libya, in what US intelligence assessments have suggested might be a coordinated military tactic to hamper the LNA’s bid to take Tripoli, and therefore the whole country.
There have also been numerous reports of extremist fighters joining the effort in Tripoli against Haftar, with some returning from Syria as battle-hardened extremists as a result of the bloody conflict, in which Turkey has been closely involved.
Yesterday, there were also rumors that Zeyad Balaem, one of the leaders of Ansar al-Sharia and the Benghazi Shura Council, which Haftar has battled for the past three years, was injured in fighting for the GNA, or at least against Haftar.
Diplomatic sources briefed on the talks with Ankara had previously said that Turkey was being “sensitive” to NATO and US-leadership opinion against sending weapons to Libya, which remains under a UN arms embargo, and was using the opportunity to seek economic concessions.
Last night, however, a senior Western diplomatic source said it does not appear as if Turkey is at all concerned with “upping the ante and their position with the Americans.”
Haftar is visiting European capitals this week, drumming up support for his battle for Tripoli. Now, according to a Libyan diplomat with knowledge of discussions between Haftar and the White House, he may be invited to Washington DC, which has publicly shown support for him but has yet to step in militarily in Libya.