Cairo- Libyan National Army chief Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar on Thursday ordered naval units to confront Italian warships in territorial waters despite growing fears of clashes erupting.
Haftar’s order came a day after Rome launched a mission to counter migrant smuggling from Libya.
Haftar’s office said his instructions were issued late in the evening, just hours after the arrival of an Italian navy boat to the coast of Tripoli.
Libyan naval bases in Tobruk, Benghazi, Ras Lanuf and Tripoli were ordered to intercept any foreign maritime warship entering the African country’s regional waters that are not authorized by the Libyan armed forces. The order does not include licensed trade foreign vessels.
According to local newspapers, the Italian government downplayed most threats made by Haftar, dismissing them as “mere propaganda,” saying “there is no real danger.”
However, government sources were quoted as saying that the Italian government and the interior, defense and foreign affairs ministries are following the situation closely.
Italy’s Interior Minister Marco Minniti believes that reconciliation between warring Libyan parties remains a priority for a sustainable settlement.
“If NGOs do not sign up (to a new code of conduct), it is difficult to see how they can continue operating,” Minniti said in an interview with Turin daily La Stampa.
Minniti’s warning came a day after Italian authorities impounded a boat operated by German aid organization Jugend Rettet on suspicion its crew effectively collaborated with people traffickers in a way that facilitated illegal immigration.
Other Diplomats say there is a low risk of armed confrontation, since the LNA operates in eastern and central Libya, while the migrant-smuggling area is from western ports under control of the GNA led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
Italy insists its naval craft will support Libyan naval units who will intercept migrant-smuggling craft close to Libya’s coast, and says there are no plans for Italian warships to take a direct role in the operation.