Six Turks held in Libya by forces linked to strongman Haftar

Ankara (AFP) –


Turkey said Sunday six of its nationals were being held by forces of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar after earlier warning Ankara was ready to retaliate against attacks.

Haftar has ordered attacks on Turkish ships and interests after he recently lost ground to the UN-recognised Libyan government which is also backed by Turkey.

"The detention of six of our citizens by illegal militia forces linked to Haftar is an act of thuggery and piracy. We expect our citizens to be immediately released," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

"Should this not happen, Haftar elements will become legitimate targets," it added.

But the ministry did not give any details on where the Turks were being held or when they had been taken by the forces.

A ministry source told AFP there was "no additional information to give at this stage".

Haftar' instructed his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) to target Turkish companies, ban flights and arrest Turkish nationals in Libya, his spokesman said Friday.

After a NATO-backed uprising that led to dictator Moamer Kadhafi's death in 2011, Libya was propelled into chaos with militias fighting for control of the country.

Haftar was a retired general who had taken part in the revolt against Kadhafi but in May 2014, he launched his assault to purge the country of Islamist "terrorists".

- 'Heavy price' -

The LNA, which holds eastern Libya and much of the country's south, launched an offensive to take the capital Tripoli in early April.

Anti-Haftar forces recently retook the strategic town of Gharyan in a surprise attack and a major setback for the strongman.

Earlier on Sunday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar warned there would be a "heavy price for hostile attitudes or attacks", in comments to state news agency Anadolu.

"We will retaliate in the most effective and strong way," Akar said.

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

"It should be known that we have taken all kinds of measures to deal with any threat or antagonistic action against Turkey," Akar added.

He emphasised Turkey's push to support a political solution in Libya would continue and said Turkish efforts were in line with international law and agreements.

Turkey has a keen interest in Libya, especially since it had been part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912 when the north African country was conquered by Italy.

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

He told reporters on June 20 that Turkish backing had allowed Tripoli to "rebalance" the fight against Haftar, who has the backing of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu last month criticised "some countries" without naming them who were giving weapons and ammunition support to Haftar.

"They should not forget that taking sides like this, supporting military solutions rather than political solutions, will drag Libya into a long-running civil war," Cavusoglu said on May 2.