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 halting 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. The official was speaking on condition of anonymity under the government’s customary practices.
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 the incident between Turkish warships and a French naval vessel in the Mediterranean.
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.
At the time, the French frigate was part of the Sea Guardian mission, which is helping to provide maritime security in the Mediterranean. France said it was acting based on NATO information and that under the alliance's rules of engagement such conduct is considered a hostile act.
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 only that investigators had submitted their report but said it was “classified” and declined to say what conclusions, if any, had been drawn.
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.
Turkey has angered its NATO partners over the last year with its invasion of northern Syria and insistence on buying Russian-made missiles. At least eight NATO allies have backed France over the naval standoff, according to French officials.
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 Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries. France has helped Hifter in the past.
Earlier Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed his country’s support to the Tripoli-based administration in Libya and without naming France, criticized nations who have backed the rival administration led by Hifter.
“We are following with concern those who, when it comes to words, champion democracy, human rights and laws, but take putschists under their wings,” Erdogan said, in reference to Hifter. “Turkey won’t abandon the people of Libya to the mercy of putschists and will continue to act within the limits of international legality.”
Macron on Monday condemned Turkey's actions in Libya as “unacceptable," and said that Ankara “doesn’t respect any of its commitments.” He denied backing Hifter and said that France is in favor of finding a “political solution.”
The French ministry official described the decision to suspend participation in Sea Guardian as “a very clear political gesture” to highlight “ambiguities of an anti-trafficking operation in which there are traffickers involved.”
“We have a NATO maritime security operation, one of its activities being to control trafficking” and at the same time “a member who is trafficking,” he said.
Lorne Cook reported from Brussels. Angela Charlton in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin, and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.