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France suspends role in NATO naval mission over tensions with Turkey

A French warship pictured in the port of Nice on October 12, 2018.
A French warship pictured in the port of Nice on October 12, 2018. © Eric Gaillard, REUTERS
3 min

France has informed NATO that it is suspending its involvement in a naval operation in the Mediterranean after the results of a probe into an incident between French and Turkish warships, an official at the Armed Forces ministry said on Wednesday.

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The official said in a letter to NATO's Secretary-General that France had made four demands to clarify the role of the Sea Guardian operation, including its cooperation with an EU mission that is enforcing a UN arms embargo to Libya.

Ties between NATO allies France and Turkey have soured in recent weeks over Libya, Northern Syria and drilling in the eastern Mediterranean.

>> France's Macron accuses Turkey of playing 'a dangerous game' in Libya

France has been especially angry after accusing Turkish warships of being aggressive towards its Courbet warship after it attempted to inspect a vessel in June that it suspected was violating a United Nations arms embargo on Libya. The Courbet was operating in the NATO Sea Guardian operation.

NATO opened an investigation after France protested during an alliance defence ministers meeting in June.

France suspends naval mission as Turkish tensions rise

French newspaper L'Opinion reported on Wednesday that France had sent a letter to NATO informing the alliance of its decision to suspend its role in operation Sea Guardian until it had clarifications.

The French Armed Forces Ministry, Foreign Ministry and Allied Maritime Command, which heads up Sea Guardian, did not immediately respond for comment.

France has said that on June 10 Turkish warships flashed their radar lights three times at the Courbet and that Turkish sailors had also put on bullet-proof vests and stood behind their light weapons during the incident.

Turkey has dismissed the French claims as "groundless".

France calls for respect of Libya embargo

Wednesday's decision follows an escalation in tensions with Turkey over the Libya conflict that has seen both sides exchange accusations with increasing bitterness in recent days.

Ankara supports the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in the Libya conflict against rebel strongman Khalifa Haftar.

France is suspected by analysts of backing Haftar alongside Egypt, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, but insists it is neutral in the conflict.

Paris accuses Ankara of shipping arms to Libya in defiance of a UN embargo as well as sending in pro-Turkey Syrian militia fighters fresh from the conflict there.

"It does not seem to us healthy to maintain our assets in an operation supposed, among its various tasks, to control an embargo alongside allies who do not respect it," a French defence official, who asked not to be named, told reporters on Wednesday, in apparent reference to Turkey.

Paris demands in particular "that allies solemnly reaffirm their attachment and their commitment to the respect of the embargo" on weapons to Libya, the official added. 

France's foreign minister said European Union foreign ministers would meet on July 13 to discuss Turkey, adding that new sanctions on Ankara could be considered.

"At our request there will be a meeting of EU foreign ministers on July 13 solely on the Turkish question," Jean-Yves Le Drian told a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday.

"Sanctions have already been taken on Turkey by the EU over Turkey's drilling in the Cyprus economic zone. Other sanctions may be envisaged," he added.

In a sign of the tensions, Turkish reports said earlier this month Turkey had arrested four of its own nationals on suspicion of spying for France on conservative and religious groups.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)

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