Libyan rebels, angry about a lull in NATO airstrikes on dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s forces, are directing their rage at Turkey, the only Muslim member of the alliance.
Earlier this week, the rebels turned back a Turkish ship carrying food and medical aid to Benghazi, and on Wednesday they physically attacked the Turkish Consulate in the eastern city.
“Turkey is blocking NATO attacks” on Col. Gadhafi’s forces, Guma el-Gamaty, coordinator for the rebels’ Interim National Transitional Council in Britain, told The Washington Times in a phone interview from London.
“We believe the reason why NATO attacks have come down in the last four or five days is because Turkey is vetoing a lot of them,” Mr. el-Gamaty said.
However, Turkey has pursued an aggressive campaign to broker a cease-fire between the rebels and the Gadhafi regime.
On Monday, Ankara hosted meetings with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Abdulati Obeidi, the acting foreign minister for Col. Gadhafi, who was named after his predecessor, Musa Kusa, defected to London last week.
“Change in Libya is necessary,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said in an interview Wednesday. “We want this to be peaceful. We want civilians not to be on the receiving end of any harm. We want the natural resources of the country to be unharmed.”
Mr. Arinc acknowledged that Turkey has yet to designate which Libyan officials and entities with assets it will freeze, as required by the U.N. Security Council resolutions authorizing the allies’ Libyan operation. Russia, the European Union, the U.S. and Switzerland have published such assets freeze lists.
“Turkey has ongoing work on this,” he said, adding that the Turkish government intends to comply with the Security Council resolutions.
Ali Aujali, the official representative of the Transitional National Council of the Libyan Republic in the United States, said Turkey’s position on Libya has been inconsistent.
“The Turkish position from the beginning is not consistent,” Mr. Aujali said in an interview. “We have not seen many consistent statements. But now it seems they are adopting themselves to be a kind of mediator and work with both sides. I am happy to see Turkey shift the regime from one side to the middle.”
Meanwhile, Mr. el-Gamaty, the Transitional Council official in Britain, said Libyan rebels have reliable information that Turkey is selling fuel to the Gadhafi regime.
Other rebel sources said shipments of Turkish fuel had arrived in Az Zawiyah and Tripoli.
Az Zawiyah, a western city formerly controlled by the rebels but now in the regime’s grip, was the scene of “unspeakable atrocities” by Col. Gadhafi’s forces, according to a rebel spokesman who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety.
The relationship between the rebels and Turkey has become strained over the past week.
Over the weekend, a Turkish ship evacuated 250 people wounded in fighting in the western city of Misurata. The ship, which docked in Benghazi on its way to Turkey, was greeted by throngs of cheering Libyans.
The decision to turn away the Turkish aid ship “was seen as snub for Turkey’s position against the effective support by NATO and the allied forces to equip the pro-democracy [Transitional Council] in its fight against the Gadhafi regime,” a source close to the opposition council in Benghazi said on the condition of anonymity.
“The reason for Turkey’s obstruction has not been understood,” he added.
The command and control center of NATO’s Libya operations is based in the Aegean port of Izmir.
NATO took full control of Libyan operations from a U.S.-led coalition last week.
A Turkish official dismissed the rebels’ allegations as “completely false and unfounded.”
“Turkey has been actively participating in a number of efforts within NATO and by itself to impose the no-fly zone, arms embargo and providing humanitarian aid,” Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told The Times in an e-mail.
“Actually, Turkey is the only country at the moment that is conducting a major humanitarian aid and medical operation in Benghazi and Misurata,” he added.
Last month, the government in Ankara named Omer Solendil, a former ambassador in Libya, as an envoy to the Libyan opposition in Benghazi. Turkey also is representing U.S. diplomatic interests in Tripoli.
Turkey was initially reluctant to support airstrikes in Libya, and in a speech last month Mr. Erdogan said Turkey “will never point a gun at the Libyan people.”
On a visit to London last week, Mr. Erdogan had also rejected the idea of arming the rebels saying it “could be conducive to terrorism.”
Anti-Gadhafi forces say they are angry about Mr. Erdogan’s position.
“The protesters are saying that Erdogan disappointed them and are urging him to take his place alongside the Libyan revolutionaries,” Ali Davutoglu, Turkish consul general in Benghazi, was quoted as saying by Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper.
In Washington on Wednesday, the White House acknowledged that President Obama had received a letter from Col. Gadhafi asking for a cease-fire with NATO, adding that it urged the Libyan dictator to end his attacks on civilians.
The U.S. ended close air support missions for the rebels over the weekend, prompting calls from the rebels to continue the mission.