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Jets hit Libyan airbase recently captured by Turkish-backed forces, say sources

Al-Watiya was recently captured by Libya’s internationally recognised government from forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar
The al-Watiya airbase was recently captured by Libya’s internationally recognised government with Turkish support (AFP)

Warplanes struck overnight at a strategic airbase in western Libya, according to a military source and a nearby resident. The attack happened at the al-Watiya base, which Turkey is reportedly seeking to use to establish a firmer foothold in the country.

The base had recently been captured by Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) with Turkish military support from forces loyal to eastern commander Khalifa Haftar.

A military source with Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) told Reuters that the strikes at the base were carried out by “unknown aircraft”. 

Still, on Sunday a Turkish defence official confirmed the attack against al-Watiya, saying: “The attack damaged some systems at the airbase,” attributing the attack to Haftar's forces.

Libya's GNA later on Sunday condemned the overnight air raids against the recaptured airbase, alleging they were carried out by a "foreign air force", AFP said.

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A resident of the nearby town of Zintan said explosions were heard from the direction of the base.

Al-Watiya’s capture in May by the Tripoli-based GNA marked the collapse of the LNA’s 14-month assault to seize the capital, forcing it to retreat along the coast.

Turkish support was vital to the GNA in turning back the LNA offensive, using advanced air defences and drone strikes that targeted Khalifa's supply lines and troop build-ups.

A Turkish source said last month that Ankara was in talks with the GNA to establish two bases in Libya, one of them at al-Watiya, the most important airbase in western Libya.

Growing influence

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.

Turkey's Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was in Tripoli for meetings with the GNA on Friday and Saturday, where he swore to do all that was necessary to help the government, a Turkish defence ministry statement said.

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The LNA is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt. During its advance towards Tripoli last year, it was assisted by Egyptian and UAE air strikes.

Last month, the United States said Russia had sent at least 14 MiG-29 and Su-24 warplanes to an LNA base via Syria, where it said their Russian airforce markings were removed.

Turkish involvement in Libya has also angered France and Greece, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warning of new sanctions against Ankara.

The GNA and LNA are now mobilising forces at the new frontlines between the cities of Misrata and Sirte.

Egypt has warned that any Turkish-backed effort to take Sirte, which the LNA captured in January, could lead its army to directly intervene.