Associated Press . July 1, 2020, 3:12 PM GMT+2
PARIS (AP) — France announced Wednesday that it is suspending its involvement in a NATO naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea after a standoff with a Turkish warship, amid growing tensions within the military alliance over the conflict in Libya.
France’s Defense Ministry said that the government sent a letter Tuesday to NATO saying it is suspending its participation in Sea Guardian “temporarily.” It came after NATO investigators submitted their report into the June 10 incident.
A ministry official said France wants NATO allies to “solemnly reaffirm their attachment” to the arms embargo on Libya, which is being policed in part by a European Union naval operation.
France has accused Turkey of repeated violations of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya and branded the Turkish government as an obstacle to securing a ceasefire in the North African nation, which Turkey firmly denies.
France is also calling for a crisis mechanism to prevent a repeat of an incident earlier this month between Turkish warships and a French naval vessel in the Mediterranean. NATO is investigating what happened.
France says its frigate Courbet was “lit up” three times by Turkish naval targeting radar when it tried to approach a Tanzanian-flagged civilian ship suspected of involvement in arms trafficking. The ship was being escorted by three Turkish warships. The Courbet backed off after the confrontation.
France claims that under NATO’s rules of engagement such conduct is considered a hostile act. At the time, the French frigate was part of the Sea Guardian mission, which is helping to provide maritime security in the Mediterranean.
Turkey has denied harassing the Courbet. Turkey’s ambassador to France was questioned in the French Senate on Wednesday and defended Turkey’s actions as peaceful and crucial to restoring stability to Libya.
Ambassador Ismail Hakki Musa said he thinks NATO has completed its investigation and that the findings were inconclusive. NATO confirmed that investigators had submitted their report on the incident, but declined to discuss it as the findings are “classified.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the incident as a “very serious.”
“We should do everything to ensure that such incidents aren’t repeated among NATO allies,” Merkel said Wednesday during a question-and-answer session in the German parliament.
Merkel met with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday; Turkey’s foreign minister is expected to visit Berlin on Thursday.
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a NATO-backed uprising toppled leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since been split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and different foreign governments.
The government in Tripoli led by Fayez Sarraj is backed not just by Turkey, which sent troops and mercenaries to protect the capital in January, but also Italy and Qatar. Rival forces under the command of Khalifa Hifter, who launched an offensive on Tripoli last year, are supported by France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries.
Angela Charlton in Paris, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.