Istanbul: Turkey has started deploying troops to Libya, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday evening in a live television interview, keeping his promise to support the fragile government in Tripoli even as Western states have warned against escalating a conflict between the government and rebel forces.
Turkish troops will be part of a combined training and fighting force to support the Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj in Tripoli, which has been under attack for months by forces from eastern Libya.
Erdogan told CNN that Turkish troops would set up an operations center headed by a lieutenant general and would focus on coordination and training. The first troops were already gradually heading out, he said, but the larger concentration of forces will follow later.
Erdogan’s comments came after the Turkish Parliament approved a resolution Thursday to send troops to Libya.
Last month Turkey signed an economic agreement with Tripoli, and al-Serraj’s government requested military assistance.
Turkey has become increasingly embroiled in a proxy war the Libyan National Army - which controls much of eastern Libya and is backed by Egypt and Russia — has sought to seize control of the whole country.
In recent weeks, LNA forces have been buoyed by the arrival of Kremlin-backed Russian mercenaries armed with sophisticated drone-jamming technology.
They have pushed farther into Tripoli, tightening their grip on the capital.
In a sign of the worsening situation, at least 30 people were killed and 33 wounded, many of them military cadets, in a missile strike this weekend on a military academy in Tripoli.
It is not clear how large a force Turkey intends to send, but Turkish analysts have described a mixed air, land and naval force.
Land and sea base
Turkey has plans, they say, to establish a sea and land base, possibly in Misrata, and to train a Libyan national army.
Two naval frigates are already nearby in Algeria and a submarine is off Libya, a Turkish reporter and analyst, Mete Sohtaoglu, posted Saturday on Twitter. He said combat aircraft and commandos would also be deployed.
Erdogan said the aim of the deployment, which he said would last for a year, was to help the Libyan government forces gain the upper hand.
“It is to keep them on their feet and let them come out of it with victory and have their own land,” he said.
“The actual aim of this decision that the Grand National Assembly of Turkey has taken is to help secure a cease-fire, and help a return to the political process,” he added.
He said the deployment was intended to help bring stability - “to prevent any development that would destabilize the region and cause humanitarian tragedies.”
Erdogan seemed at pains to emphasize for his domestic audience that Turkish soldiers would not be doing the fighting, but would serve in training and coordinating operations.
Other forces, he said, apparently referring to Turkish-backed Syrian fighters, would make up the combat units, he said.
Some Turkish-backed Syrian fighters have already arrived in Tripoli in recent days.