France escalates Turkey dispute by quitting Nato naval mission

France has suspended involvement in a Nato Mediterranean Sea mission over an incident with Turkish warships, in a sign of deepening tensions between the two members of the transatlantic military alliance. 

Paris said on Wednesday that it had written to Nato to pull out temporarily from Operation Sea Guardian off the coast of war-racked Libya, until it receives responses to requests about the run-in with Ankara.

The move is part of an escalating confrontation between Paris and Ankara as Libya’s Turkish-allied government in Tripoli has fended off the onslaught of the warlord Khalifa Haftar, whom France denies supporting despite accusations to the contrary.

It adds to a wider dispute within Nato that led French President Emmanuel Macron to declare the alliance was suffering “brain death” over its response to Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria last year.

French officials claim Turkish frigates targeted a French warship with their fire-control radars last month when it was seeking to inspect a cargo ship suspected of carrying weapons to Libya. Ankara has denied the allegations.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, told a French parliamentary hearing on Wednesday that he would meet EU counterparts at his request on July 13 to discuss possible new sanctions against Turkey.

The European bloc has imposed – largely symbolic – punitive measures on Ankara over its drilling for hydrocarbons in waters off Cyprus, an EU member.

A Nato official said a classified report by its military authorities on the Mediterranean ship incident would be discussed by alliance member states soon. It said participation in Nato missions was a national decision, adding that Operation Sea Guardian continued to carry out maritime situational awareness, counter terrorism and capacity building.

Turkey and France have been locked in an escalating war of words over Libya that reflects their contrasting interests in the conflict in the oil-rich Northern African country.

Ankara has sent weapons and military advisers to help the UN-backed government in Tripoli — the so-called Government of National Accord — push back the insurgent Gen Haftar, who is backed by powers including Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

France insists it remains neutral in the Libyan conflict, but the UN-backed Libyan government and western officials say Paris has been an important political supporter of Haftar – if not more. Paris publicly backed his offensive in southern Libya that preceded his attack on Tripoli last year, and French javelin missiles were seized by the GNA in one of Haftar’s bases.

Meanwhile, Mr Macron has accused Turkey of “criminal” actions in the civil war and of breach of its commitments made at an international conference earlier this year aimed at halting the war.

Ankara has responded that France supported a “pirate and putschist.” It also argues it is acting in support of an internationally-recognised government.

Turkey has suffered a troubled relationship with Nato in recent years as a result of a foreign policy approach that has been viewed by allies as muscular and often unilateralist. A decision to buy an S-400 air defence system from Russia led to Ankara’s expulsion from the alliance’s F-35 stealth fighter jet programme.

But France has itself drawn criticism from other European Nato countries over both its stance on Libya and Mr Macron’s attacks on the alliance. German chancellor Angela Merkel late last year rejected Mr Macron’s “brain death” comments as “drastic words” that did not reflect her view of co-operation in Nato.