Libya’s east-based forces release ship with Turkish crew

CAIRO (AP) — Libya’s forces based in the country’s east said Monday they have released a vessel with Turkish crew members seized over the weekend amid heightened tensions in the eastern Mediterranean over a contentious maritime border deal involving Tripoli and Ankara.

Ahmed al-Mosmari, a spokesman for the self-styled Libyan National Army, said they found no weapons on the vessel flying a Grenada flag, which was carrying a shipment of flour from Malta to the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria.

The vessel was seized “because it entered Libya’s territorial waters without prior permission,” the spokesman said.

The LNA, led by military commander Khalifa Hifter, seized the vessel on Saturday and took it into a Libyan port under its control for inspection.

The vessel’s seizure came amid heightened tensions between the LNA and Turkey which backs Libya’s U.N.-supported government, based in the country’s capital of Tripoli.

Turkey and the Tripoli-based government signed maritime and security agreements last month, drawing international outrage and concern from several Mediterranean countries.

The deals, which were approved by the Turkish parliament on Saturday, allow Ankara to provide military training and equipment at Tripoli’s request. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also said Turkey could send troops to Libya if the Tripoli government formally asked for their deployment.

The self-styled army has been trying to capture the capital since April from an array of militias allied with the Tripoli-based administration. The fighting has escalated in the past week after Hifter declared a “final” and decisive battle for the capital.

Hifter is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia, while the Tripoli-based government receives aid from Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

The offensive threatens to plunge Libya into another bout of violence, the scale of the 2011 conflict that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.