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Six Turks held by Haftar's forces released in Libya

Turkey had warned that if its citizens were not immediately freed the eastern commander's forces would become 'legitimate targets'
This image grab taken from a video published on the Facebook page of the War Information Division of military strongman Khalifa Haftar's self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) shows his forces in battle (AFP)

Six Turkish citizens detained in Libya by forces loyal to eastern commander Khalifa Haftar have been released, Turkish diplomatic sources told Middle East Eye on Monday.

Ankara had said on Sunday that six of its nationals were being held and had warned that there would be consequences if they were not immediately released.

The AFP news agency and the state-owned Anadolu news agency said the Turks were sailors after Turkey's defence ministry had denied reports that the detainees included military personnel.

However, the Turkish diplomatic sources told MEE that those freed were not sailors.

Turkey's foreign ministry spokesman said those released wanted to keep working rather than return to Turkey, the Reuters news agency reported.

'Legitimate targets'

In a statement on Sunday, the Turkish foreign ministry had said Haftar's forces would become  "legitimate targets" if the Turks were not released.

"The detention of six of our citizens by illegal militia forces linked to Haftar is an act of thuggery and piracy," the ministry said.

"We expect our citizens to be immediately released. Should this not happen, Haftar elements will become legitimate targets."

The ministry did not give any details as to where the Turks were being held or when they had been taken, AFP said on Sunday.​​​​​​

Haftar's forces say Turkish drone destroyed

Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which holds eastern Libya and much of the country's south, launched an offensive to take the capital in early April.

However, anti-Haftar forces recently retook the strategic town of Gharyan in a surprise attack that was a major setback for the rebel commander.

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Haftar then instructed his forces to target Turkish ships and companies, ban flights and arrest Turkish nationals in Libya, his spokesman said on Friday.

Later on Sunday, Haftar's forces said they destroyed a Turkish drone in a strike on an airport in Tripoli.

"Our fighter jets targeted and destroyed a Turkish Bayraktar aircraft as it was taking off" from Mitiga airport, the LNA said in a statement on Facebook.

Airport authorities said they had suspended flights "until further notice" following an air strike, AFP reported.

An official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a raid had targeted a runway without causing casualties or damage.

'Contribute to peace'

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 20 June confirmed his country backs the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and provides weapons to it under a "military cooperation agreement".

Ankara has supplied drones and trucks to forces allied to Tripoli's Western-backed prime minister, Fayez al-Serraj, while Haftar's LNA has received support from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, according to diplomats.

The rebel commander’s offensive has upended UN-led plans to stabilise Libya after years of conflict that have left the oil producer divided and caused living standards to plummet.

The conflict risks disrupting oil production, creating a vacuum to be exploited by militants and prompting more migrants to head for Italy by boat, Reuters said.

Earlier on Sunday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was cited as saying any threats from Haftar's forces would be punished severely, and that Turkey had taken measures to prevent attacks.

"As we contribute to establishing peace and stability in the region, any threatening stance or attacks will have a very heavy price, they will be reciprocated in the harshest and most effective way," Akar was quoted as saying by state media and by Reuters.

He said Turkey's efforts in Libya sought to "contribute to peace" in the region.

Haftar and his backers say they are trying to free Tripoli from militias that they accuse of destabilising Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011.

Haftar's critics accuse him of trying to seize power through force and deepening a conflict between factions based in the east and west of the sprawling North African country.