Turkey marks rebel air base as next target in Libya

Turkey has designated the rebel-controlled Al-Jufra air base in Libya as a new military target, a strategic point Egypt has called a “red line” for military intervention, said the Turkish presidential communications office on Sunday evening.

The Directorate of Presidential Communications posted an image on Twitter that listed the strategic significance of the base located in central Libya. Al-Jufra is controlled by the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar – an ally of Egypt.

“Jufra Air Base… was determined as the new military target together with the city of Sirte after the cleansing of Tripoli and its surroundings from putschist Haftar elements by the forces of the (Tripoli-based) Government of National Accord (GNA),” it said.

Ankara has provided military support for the GNA as part of a security cooperation agreement that analysts have turned the tide of the internationally recognised government’s conflict with Haftar’s forces.

The Directorate of Presidential Communications said the military base, which is necessary for controlling oil supply lines in energy-rich Libya has a big importance, and that it has been  also used to deploy Kremlin-linked mercenaries and, more recently, fighter jets from Russia, who also backs Haftar.

In June, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi threatened Turkey and the GNA with military intervention should attempt to rout the LNA from Al-Jufra and Sirte, another strategic location on Libya’s coast.

Sisi’s announcement of a “red line” with Al-Jufra and Sirte has “raised question marks over the future of the air base”, the Turkish office said.

“Despite all this, the GNA aims to clear the Sirte and Cufra regions from Haftar elements with ‘Operation Victory Roads’ launched after the successes achieved in Tripoli,” it said.

The announcement came after warplanes struck an air base recently recaptured by the GNA overnight Saturday, according to Reuters on Sunday.

An LNA military source told Reuters that “unidentified aircraft” carried out the strikes against Al-Watiya, a statement reinforced by a Reuters witness who said explosions came from the base’s direction.

Turkey and GNA-allied forces retook the air base from the LNA in May in a series of victories made from repelling Haftar’s 15-month assault on Tripoli.

Last month, Reuters reported that Ankara and Tripoli were discussing possible Turkish use of Al-Watiya and a naval base in Misrata, currently a new frontline between the GNA and LNA.

Security expert Metin Gürcan said the entity behind the air strike on Sunday had tested Al-Watiya’s air defence capabilities.

“Result? We failed the test,” Gürcan tweeted, questioning how Turkey would respond to the raid.

“Now who’s turn is it to move. Ours."

In other developments, photograph footage posted online showed Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar being interviewed in front of captured and downed Russian-made aircraft in Libya.

Akar was on a visit to Tripoli for meetings and to review activities carried out as part of a security cooperation agreement made in November.

In NATO's 71-year history, “this is the first-ever photo of a NATO defence minister openly displaying Russian air assets that are downed by his own country”, said international relations expert Akin Unver on Sunday.

“Significant layers of symbolism both in terms of the downed HIND and Mig-25 behind.”

Separately, tens of thousands of protesters in LNA-controlled Benghazi called for foreign forces to withdraw from Libya, tweeted journalist Memet Aksakal on Sunday.