Tunisia wary of security fallout from Libya conflict
TUNIS - Tunisia put its army and security forces on high alert along its 400km border with Libya against the risk of spillover from the conflict there.
Fighting between Islamist-dominated forces of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and Libyan National Army (LNA) has intensified since Turkey announced it might send troops, mercenaries and allied fighters from the Syrian war to Libya to bolster the GNA against the LNA offensive.
The LNA, led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, seized control of the strategic town of Sirte on January 6 and has advanced towards Misrata, the base of main Islamist militia. LNA General Khaled Mahjoub on January 9 promised the Libyan people “a big and joyous surprise in the next two days.”
He cited the rapid advance of “huge LNA forces” from several directions towards the centre of Tripoli and Misrata, pockets of territory under GNA control. More than 90% of the country is under LNA control.
Tunisian leaders said they worry that the strife in Libya could set off an exodus of refugees towards its border.
“All indications point towards worsening of the situation in Libya because of the foreign intervention,” Tunisian President Kais Saied said on January 7. “There are diplomatic efforts deployed within the framework of the United Nations and by other countries in the Arab region, including Tunisia, and beyond but these efforts are not reaching to the level of providing a peaceful solution to the conflict.”
Saied warned against terrorists hiding among refugees and sneaking into Tunisia.
“We have to prepare ourselves well for all aspects of the effect of the conflict in Libya not only those related to security and the possibility of a number of terrorists infiltrating among the ranks of refugees but for repatriation of a number of foreigners who will likely enter the territory,” he said.
Saied called on the international community to help Tunisia cope with the expected influx of refugees.
“It is necessary to coordinate with the international community, namely the European Union, in order to provide the financial resources that enable Tunisia to cope with the effects of the situation in Libya,” he said.
The flare-up in Libya prompted frenetic diplomatic activity including several Arab and Mediterranean countries. Turkey and Russia urged Libya’s warring sides to respect a ceasefire they set to go into effect January 12.
Saied met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian January 9. Saied told Le Drian: “Tunisia’s constant stands are premised on the respect of international legality.”
In an indication of the security threat to Tunisia from Libya, Tunisian authorities said security forces foiled a plot involving raids on security outposts in the border town of Ben Guerdane. The authorities said they seized 35 Turkey-made assault rifles January 5 near Beni Khedache.
The local Achourouk newspaper quoted unidentified Tunisian security officials as saying the “foiled terrorist plot” included security outposts in Ben Guerdane to allow for “intrusion of jihadists from Libya.”
About 100 jihadists attacked Ben Guerdane on March 7, 2016, targeting army barracks and security outposts. Thirty-six Islamic State-affiliated militants were killed in the battle, along with seven civilians and 12 members of the security forces.
After that attack Tunisia boosted its defences on the Libyan border with security and logistics help from the United States and Germany, authorities said.
Tunisia has been increasingly unable to project its traditional neutrality in the Libyan conflict with Sarraj and the Libyan Islamist leaders frequently travelling to Tunisia to meet with its leaders.
The EU top diplomat and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy condemned Turkey’s plans to deploy troops to North Africa. Tunisia rejected in broad terms foreign intervention in Libya.
Saied hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his defence and foreign ministers and intelligence chief as well as Sarraj but there have been no apparent diplomatic gestures towards Haftar and the LNA.
“There are many calls from experts and political figures to President Saied so that he takes a clear stand showing that Tunisia does not side with any of the two camps in the Libyan conflict,” said political writer Myriam Ben Zineb. “The head of state must understand that receiving Erdogan gives the impression that Tunisia is aligned with the Turkey-Sarraj axis against Haftar.”
Conflicting statements from the presidency over what Erdogan wanted from Tunisia for his intervention in Libya added to the confusion.
Presidency communication chief Rachida Ennaifer said Saied rejected Erdogan’s request that Turkey move troops and military equipment through Tunisia. However, Saied’s chief-of-staff, Tarek Bettaieb, refuted Ennaifer’s comments, saying: “Such rumours were aimed at undermining the good ties between Turkey and Tunisia.”