ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s president has met with the head of Libya’s U.N.-recognized government, following heightened tensions between Turkey and forces loyal to a rival Libyan authority.
In a statement from his office late Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his support for Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj’s “legitimate” government.
Libya is split between two warring governments. Sarraj leads the weakened government based in the capital of Tripoli in the west, supported by an array of militias.
The self-styled Libyan National Army of Khalifa Hifter rules much of the rest of the country. His ongoing offensive to seize the capital has threatened to plunge Libya into another bout of violence on the scale of the conflict that ousted Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Erdogan called on Hifter’s forces to cease their attacks.
The military commander’s forces has said that Turkish vessels and interests would be considered targets, after accusing Turkey of helping militias allied with the Tripoli government. Six Turkish nationals were freed this week after Turkey threatened action.
The LNA also said it deployed more troops to join the Tripoli fighting.
On Friday, its media center posted footage it says shows “military battalions” that would be sent to the front for the first time. The footage showed dozens of armored vehicles moving in the desert under air cover.
The reinforcements came less than two weeks after Hifter’s forces were driven out of the strategic town of Gharyan, in a surprise attack by militiamen aligned with the Tripoli government.
The U.N. health agency said the death toll from the fighting around the capital had reached nearly 1000, including 53 who were killed in the airstrike on the Tajoura detention center for migrants.
The World Health Organization said the fighting has wounded over 5,000 others since Hifter launched his offensive on April 4.
Fighters aligned with the government in Tripoli received Turkish-made armored vehicles in May. The LNA said it destroyed Turkish-made drones during the fighting.
In a telephone call Saturday, Erdogan spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Libyan crisis, among other topics. Hifter is backed by Russia, along with his Arab allies of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Hifter’s campaign against Islamic militants across Libya since 2014 won him growing support from world leaders concerned that Libya had become a haven for armed groups and a major conduit for migrants. But critics view him as an aspiring autocrat and fear a return to one-man rule.
Also on Saturday, migrants who survived an airstrike earlier this week on a detention center in the town of Tajoura near Tripoli went on a hunger strike to protest their conditions in the war-torn country, according to a migrant in the facility.
The migrant said guards pressured the detained migrants to remain inside a hangar adjacent to a weapons workshop at the detention center, which had been the focus of a U.N. warning in May after an earlier airstrike hit 100 meters (yards) away.
They were afraid of being hit by another airstrike, he said.
Hundreds of migrants are still trapped in the Tajoura detention center after the airstrike hit the center earlier this week, killing at least 53 people, according to the U.N. migration agency.
The migrants called for the U.N. agencies to move them out of Libya.
In another detention center in the Abu Salim district, about 7 kilometers (4 miles) from central Tripoli, another migrant said dozens of migrants held a protest earlier in the week against their detention.
They held banners that read: “We demand Justice and safety,” ”Libya is not safe for refugees,” and “stop killing refugees in Libya.”
Both migrants spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed.