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Turkey eyes Libya bases for lasting military foothold: source

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey and Libya’s internationally recognised government are discussing possible Turkish use of two military bases in the North African country, a Turkish source said on Monday, with a view to a lasting Turkish presence in the south Mediterranean.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey June 15, 2020. Turkish Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

No final decisions have been made over possible Turkish military use of the Misrata naval base and the al-Watiya air base, which was recently recaptured by the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

A more permanent air and naval presence in Libya could reinforce Turkey’s growing influence in the region, including in Syria, and boost its claims to offshore oil and gas resources.

Turkey has also flagged possible energy and construction deals with Tripoli once the fighting ends.

The GNA has in recent months driven back Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) - supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France - turning the tide on a 14-month conflict that has displaced an estimated 200,000 people.

While all sides say they want a truce, heavy clashes have emerged near the LNA-held coastal city of Sirte, which is close to major energy export terminals on the Mediterranean seaboard.

Russia and Turkey postponed high-level talks on Libya, scheduled for Sunday in Istanbul, due to discord over the GNA’s push to retake Sirte, another Turkish official said.

“Turkey using al-Watiya ... is on the agenda,” said the first source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It could also be possible for the Misrata naval base to be used by Turkey.”

Turkey has a military base in Qatar and in 2017 added troops there amid a row between Doha on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on the other.

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Ankara threw its support behind the government in Tripoli last year after the GNA signed a maritime demarcation accord that it says gives Turkish drilling rights near Crete, but that is opposed by Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the European Union.

A Libyan naval base in particular would “institutionalise” Turkey’s influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and give it leverage over Arab and European adversaries, said Galip Dalay, Fellow at Robert Bosch Academy.

DISCORD OVER SIRTE

Russia’s foreign ministry said on Sunday it was pursuing a “prompt ceasefire” and that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would reschedule the meeting that was set for Sunday with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu.

“A result was supposed to come out (of the meetings), but that stage could not be reached. There are issues where the two countries are on opposing sides,” the second Turkish official told Reuters.

“One of the main issues for the postponement of the Lavrov visit is the (GNA’s) plan for an operation into Sirte...which has emerged as a target.”

The Kremlin did not comment on the postponement. Cavusoglu said on Monday it was unrelated to any issues on “core principles”.

The United Nations said last week the warring sides had begun new ceasefire talks in Libya after GNA forces, helped by Turkey, repelled a protracted LNA assault on the capital Tripoli.

Sirte, about halfway between GNA-held Tripoli and LNA-held Benghazi, is the closest city to Libya’s main energy export terminals. Haftar’s forces seized the city in January and the conflict’s new front line has emerged just to the west.

“Russia wants Turkey and the GNA to halt military operations, particularly not attacking Sirte, Jufra and the oil crescent - and Ankara has rebuffed this demand,” said Dalay.

“If Turkish-Russian talks don’t bear fruit, we might then see escalation both in Libya and in Syria’s Idlib region”, where Ankara and Moscow also back opposing sides, he said.

Writing and additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer in Istanbul; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie

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