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Turkey's Erdogan says Russian mercenaries in Libya are paid by Abu Dhabi

By ONUR ANT | Bloomberg | Published: January 28, 2020

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lobbed a rare direct rebuke at the rulers of Abu Dhabi over their backing of Khalifa Hifter and the Russian mercenaries fighting on his behalf in Libya.

Erdogan said that the emirate is bankrolling thousands of Russian fighters who support the forces controlled by the Libyan general, whom he derided as a “desert lord.” Turkey has responded to the Russian deployment by providing military support to the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.

The Turkish president’s criticism comes as a truce agreed this month appeared to be under severe strain, with each side accusing the other of violations. A conference convened by Germany days after the cease-fire was struck had sought a cessation of hostilities to pave the way for an end to the civil war in the North African country.

“Hifter is, at the moment, like a desert lord in Libya,” Erdogan told reporters during a flight from Algeria to Gambia, according to a transcript of his remarks published by his office. “He has control in desert areas but not in populated regions.”

In fact, Hifter holds sway over the country’s east and many Libyan cities as well as most of its key oil installations. This month, his forces also took the city of Sirte.

Turkey is currently monitoring Hifter’s “ugly attempts” to grab more land but will do whatever is necessary to stop him, Erdogan said.

The United Arab Emirates Foreign Ministry and the Abu Dhabi executive council, the sheikhdom’s top decision-making body, didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment on Erdogan’s remarks.

The direct criticism once more lays bare tensions between Turkey and Abu Dhabi. The oil-rich Gulf emirate has turned into a regional rival in recent years as Erdogan supported Islamist political movements seen as a threat by Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the U.A.E.

Russian mercenaries back Hifter’s forces, officials have told Bloomberg, and he also has support from Egypt and the U.A.E., who see him as a bulwark against Islamic extremists. Turkish soldiers are training forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have also joined the conflict.

Western officials say more than 1,400 fighters with the Russian Wagner group, headed by a confidant of President Vladimir Putin, have arrived since September to back Hifter’s Libyan National Army in its offensive to capture Tripoli.

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s government has dispatched military advisers, armed drones and Syrian militiamen in support of the Government of National Accord in the Libyan capital.

Despite the Berlin accord, foreign backers of both sides have sent in fighters and advanced weapons, the United Nations mission in Libya said late Saturday. Such moves raise questions over their commitment to halting the oil producer’s latest war, which began when the eastern-based Hifter ordered his forces to march on the capital in April.

When asked this month about Russian mercenaries operating in Libya, Putin didn’t explicitly deny their presence but wouldn’t specify their number and said they receive no financing from Russia itself.

“If there are any Russian citizens there, they neither represent the interests of the Russian state, nor receive funding from the Russian state,” Putin said Jan. 11 after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow.

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