Haftar forces announce large air campaign on Turkish targets in Libya

(Updates with Turkish Foreign Ministry statement)

The Russian-backed Libyan National Army announced it was preparing to launch a large air campaign against Turkish targets “in the coming hours”, Bloomberg reported on Thursday.

The statement signals a possible escalation in the battle between the Turkish-backed government in Tripoli and the eastern-based LNA forces led by General Khalifa Haftar, who may be looking to hit back after losing a key airbase southwest of Tripoli on Monday.

“You are about to see the largest aerial campaign in Libyan history in the coming hours,” Bloomberg quoted LNA air force chief Saqr al-Jaroushi as saying in a statement. “All Turkish positions and interests in all cities are legitimate targets for our air force jets and we call on civilians to stay away from them.”

Analysts say Turkey’s contributions were vital in helping the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) seize the al-Watiya airbase on Monday, as Turkish drones and artillery had pounded the base for weeks before LNA forces retreated. Turkey has also flown in thousands of fighters from allied militias in Syria to aid in the Libyan struggle, according to widespread media reports.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry responded to Jaroushi's announcement, saying that LNA forces would be considered “legitimate targets”.

“We remind it once again that in case of targeting Turkish interests in Libya, this will have very heavy consequences and the putschist Haftar elements will be considered as a legitimate target,” said ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy in a statement carried by state-run Anadolu news agency.

GNA security chief Fathi Bashagha had told Bloomberg that at least six Soviet-era MiG 29s and two Sukhoi 24s had arrived in the east from a Russian airbase in Syria, possibly to assist the LNA in a new air campaign.

“It is noteworthy that the statement, which is referred by a foreign media outlet and said illegitimate militias loyal to Haftar will target Turkish interests with their air elements, is made after new warplanes are deployed in Libya’s east with foreign support,” Aksoy added.

Ankara propped up the GNA with direct military support in 2019, when an LNA onslaught extended its control to areas surrounding Tripoli. The GNA pushed Haftar's forces back after Turkey ramped up its support with the signing a military memorandum with the Tripoli government in November.

Turkey and Russia had pushed for a resumption of peace talks in January, but the peace process broke down after the ceasefire was repeatedly violated and the GNA and LNA’s foreign backers continued sending arms to the country.