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Haftar vows attacks on Turkish assets in Libya

Dozens of pro-Haftar fighters were killed in the clashes some 100 kilometres south of the capital and at least 18 taken prisoner, a Government of National Accord spokesman said.

FILE: Libyan General Khalifa Haftar. Picture: AFP.

BENGHAZI - Strongman Khalifa Haftar has threatened to attack Turkish interests in Libya after suffering a serious setback in his push to take the capital Tripoli, accusing Ankara of backing his rivals.

Anti-Haftar forces supporting Libya's internationally recognised government announced Wednesday they had retaken the strategic town of Gharyan in a surprise attack, seizing the main supply base for Haftar's months-long offensive.

Haftar on Saturday promised a "tough response" and accused militias backing the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord of executing his wounded troops at the town's hospital - allegations refuted by both the GNA and authorities in Gharyan.

Dozens of pro-Haftar fighters were killed in the clashes some 100 kilometres south of the capital and at least 18 taken prisoner, a GNA spokesman said.

AFP correspondents who toured Gharyan were shown signs of the hasty retreat of Haftar's forces, who left behind their wounded, a command post, arms, ammunition - and even food burning on stoves.

"The speed (of the attack), the surprise element and the revolt (of local residents) sowed fear" in the ranks of Haftar's fighters, General Ahmad Bouchahma, a senior GNA officer, said on a tour of the area.

Among the weaponry the GNA says it seized were US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles packed in wooden crates marked "armed forces of the United Arab Emirates". The UAE backs Haftar.

In retaliation for the setback, Haftar ordered his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) to target Turkish ships and companies, ban flights and arrest Turkish nationals in the country, his spokesman said.

General Ahmed al-Mesmari accused Ankara of "directly" intervening in the battle "with its soldiers, planes and ships".

He accused Turkey of assisting GNA forces in seizing Gharyan, including providing air cover, and accused the town's residents of "treason".

The LNA, which holds eastern Libya and much of the country's south, seized Gharyan on 2 April, and two days later launched its offensive on Tripoli.

But their initial lightning advance was quickly brought to a standstill in Tripoli's southern outskirts as militias backing the GNA rushed to defend the capital.

'REBALANCE'

Both sides accuse each other of using foreign mercenaries and receiving military support from external powers, despite a UN arms embargo on Libya that has been in place since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that overthrew Moamer Kadhafi's regime.

Haftar has the backing of the UAE and Egypt and accuses Turkey and Qatar of supporting the GNA.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has confirmed his country's support for the GNA, saying Ankara was providing weapons to Tripoli under a "military cooperation agreement".

He told reporters on 19 June the Turkish backing had allowed Tripoli to "rebalance" the fight against Haftar.

On Saturday, Erdogan, speaking on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan, said he did not have "any information" concerning Haftar's threat against Turkish assets.

"If there is an order like this from Haftar, my colleagues will study (it). We have already taken the necessary measures regarding this anyway, and after this, we will take much more different measures," he said.

Since the fall of Gharyan, Haftar's forces have carried out several air raids on Tripoli as GNA fighters push to keep up pressure on the LNA.

On Friday, GNA militias claimed they launched another succesful offensive, this time in Esbiaa, more than 40 kilometres south of Tripoli.

But Mesmari said the attack was repulsed after a "very violent battle".

'LEGITIMATE TARGETS'

Mesmari said orders had been given to the LNA "air force to target Turkish ships and boats in Libyan territorial waters".

"Turkish strategic sites, companies and projects belonging to the Turkish state (in Libya) are considered legitimate targets by the armed forces," he added.

"All Turkish nationals on Libyan territory will be arrested," he said, and "all flights to and from Turkey will be banned".

Regular flights to Turkey operate from Tripoli's Mitiga airport and a second airport in the western city of Misrata, where forces back the GNA.

Mesmari did not explain how the flight ban could apply to areas not under Haftar's control.