ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday urged international pressure to force the head of Libya's eastern-based forces to abide by a tentative truce and said Turkey was determined to continue supporting Libya's U.N.-backed government.
Erdogan made the comments following meetings in Istanbul with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who hosted a peace conference for Libya in Berlin on Sunday that resulted in a temporary cease-fire.
At a joint news conference with Merkel, the Turkish leader took aim at Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who leads forces based in eastern Libya that are waging an offensive to take Tripoli, the nation's capital and the seat of a U.N.-recognized government.
“This man is not trustworthy,” Erdogan said of Hifter. Countries that took part in the Berlin summit "should not entertain this man,” he said, pointing to an attack and threats from Hifter's forces that shut down Tripoli's Mitiga International Airport earlier this week.
Erdogan added that Turkey would not abandon Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, the head of the Tripoli government. “We are determined to give him all the support we can afford,” he said.
Hifter’s forces, which control the east and much of southern Libya, receive support from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia.
Turkey supports Sarraj's Tripoli-based government, which is also backed to a lesser degree by Qatar and Italy. Turkey has sent troops in support of Sarraj but the Turkish leader reiterated that the deployment consists of “trainers and educators” and not a combat force.
Erdogan and Merkel argued publicly about the result of the Berlin peace summit. The German chancellor said Hifter had agreed in principle to the truce, while the Turkish president insisted the Libyan general did “not put his signature” on any document.
During their meetings, Erdogan and Merkel also discussed the future of a migration deal between Turkey and the European Union that helped decrease refugee flows to Europe.
The number of migrants entering Europe from Turkey rose significantly last year as people fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan arrived in Greece, leading to deteriorating conditions in overcrowded camps on the eastern Aegean islands. New Syrian government attacks in the northern Syrian province of Idlib have sent thousands of Syrians fleeing toward the Turkish border.
Spearheaded by Germany, the EU agreed in 2016 to give Turkey up to 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) in Syrian refugee aid and other incentives to persuade the government in Ankara to stop migrants departing for Greece.
Merkel said she thought the EU could provide additional support to Turkey.
“I can very well imagine the EU providing support beyond the two batches of 3 billion (euros), because the way the political situation in Syria looks, there is so far no possibility in sight for the refugees to return," she said.
Merkel also said that Germany would step up work on helping strengthen the Turkish coast guard.
Erdogan frequently accuses the EU of not fulfilling its side of the deal and has in the past threatened to "open the gates" for migrants to head to Europe.
He says his country cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of hosting more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees and wants European support to settle Syrian refugees in a so-called "safe zone" in northern Syria. European nations are reluctant to back such a proposal.
Merkel said Germany could back the return of refugees to a secure zone only if the U.N.'s refugee agency approves such a resettlement scheme.
"If UNHCR says that is possible for a certain group of refugees, perhaps who come from the region, then I could imagine our supporting that together with UNHCR,” Merkel said.
She said Germany also could back Turkish plans to move the displaced Syrians away from tents and into shelters better-suited for winter.
“I indicated that we are prepared to do something regarding the refugees who are moving from Idlib toward the Turkish border, who are currently accommodated in tents," Merkel said.
Fraser reported from Ankara. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.