By Alexandra Brzozowski
(EurActiv) — Turkey prevented German forces belonging to an EU military mission carrying out a full search of a Turkish cargo ship that they suspected of taking weapons to Libya, both countries confirmed on Monday (23 November).
Soldiers from the frigate Hamburg boarded the Turkish freighter, the Rosaline A, overnight to enforce an arms embargo against Libya, but had to abandon checks and withdraw after Turkey protested to the EU mission, the German defence ministry said.
The frigate was operating in the Mediterranean as part of the EU’s Irini mission, which aims to stop arms reaching the warring factions in Libya.
“By the time the soldiers left the ship, they had not found anything suspicious,” a German defence ministry spokesman said.
Turkey said personnel from the German frigate Hamburg were flown by helicopter aboard the freighter Rosaline-A on Sunday as it sailed off the Libyan coast to carry out an hours-long search.
A Turkish government official said the German warship’s personnel boarded Rosaline-A without Turkey’s permission in violation of maritime laws.
They ended the search around dawn after “understanding that there was nothing but humanitarian aid, biscuits and other material such as paints on board,” the official said.
“Operation IRINI, conducted by the EU, is an operation the purpose and benefits of which are questionable,” Turkey’s Mission to the EU told EURACTIV in an email statement.
“The neutrality of Operation IRINI, which the EU launched without consulting neither the legitimate Government of Libya nor Turkey and NATO, is already in dispute. That being the case, this double-standard and unlawful treatment of vessels engaged in transportation from Turkey to Libya can never be accepted,” it added.
However, European diplomats and officials stated in June that Turkey was blocking EU attempts to secure NATO’s help for the operation, to whom the EU had made efforts to coordinate with.
Confirming a report in the news magazine Der Spiegel, the German spokesman said the Hamburg had intercepted the Rosaline A about 200km north of the Libyan city of Benghazi on Sunday night.
He said the Hamburg had followed standard procedure by waiting four hours for approval from the flag country, and then boarding. Later, once the objection arrived, they withdrew.
“All procedures were followed correctly,” a German foreign ministry spokeswoman said.
The 16,000-tonne container ship left the Turkish port of Gemlik near Bursa last week, and was last seen off Athens, heading southwest towards Libya, according to Refinitiv Eikon data.
Fear of renewed tensions
This was the second incident between Turkey and naval forces from a NATO ally country enforcing an arms blockade against Libya.
In June, NATO launched an investigation over an incident between Turkish warships and a French naval vessel in the Mediterranean, after France said one of its frigates was “lit up” three times by Turkish naval targeting radar when it tried to approach a Turkish civilian ship suspected of involvement in arms trafficking.
France said on Sunday (22 November) it expects Turkey to de-escalate international tension with actions instead of words ahead of an EU decision on possible further sanctions against Ankara.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French media that it would be “easy” for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to defuse standoffs in the eastern Mediterranean, in Libya and in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The soothing declarations by Erdoğan that we’ve seen over the past two or three days are not enough, we need acts,” he said.
“Whether we are closer or further away in a solution [with Turkey] is not in EU’s hands, because we were very clear in terms of expectations, this was conveyed also on Friday to our Turkish counterparts,” Peter Stano, the EU’s spokesperson for foreign affairs, told reporters.
“The expectation is de-escalation,” he said, recalling that EU leaders will meet in December “to re-evaluate what has been done from the Turkish side in order for the EU to be able to proceed on the track of the positive agenda”.
He noted that if there is no improvement, “the other options will be explored as outlined in the EU Council conclusions from 1 October”.
In October, EU leaders had adopted a carrot-and-stick approach vis-a-vis Ankara, postponing the decision on possible sanctions for the 10-11 December summit.
Libya peace efforts
In a joint statement on Monday, France, Germany, Italy and the UK welcomed the outcomes of the recent UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).
In the talks held between 7-15 November, Libya’s warring sides agreed to hold elections on 24 December 2021 – the country’s independence day, according to the head of the UN support mission in the country.
“This is an important step to restore Libya’s sovereignty and the democratic legitimacy of its institutions,” said a statement by four European countries, calling on all parties to refrain from any parallel and uncoordinated initiative.