(Adds details, quotes, Turkish comment)
By John Irish
PARIS, June 17 (Reuters) - NATO must not bury its head in the sand with regard to Turkey’s recent behaviour towards its allies, a French defence ministry official said on Wednesday, accusing the Turkish navy of harassing a French warship on a NATO mission.
A senior Turkish official denied the accusation, saying “no such thing” had occurred.
NATO defence ministers will hold a virtual meeting this week amid growing tensions between Paris and Ankara. The two allies have traded barbs over the crisis in Libya, accusing each other of supporting opposing sides in the country’s war.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, the French defence ministry official said it was time NATO had a frank discussion about Turkey and its conduct - not just in Libya, but other issues such as Ankara buying Russian S-400 defence systems and blocking NATO defence planning for the Baltics and Poland.
“We have known complicated moments in the alliance, but we can’t be an ostrich and can’t pretend there isn’t a Turkey problem at NATO. We have to see it, say it and handle it,” said the official. Calling Turkey’s behaviour unacceptable, the official singled out Turkey’s role in Libya,
Turkey, which backs the internationally recognised government in Tripoli, has secured a foothold in Libya by helping to repel an assault on the capital by the Libyan National Army (LNA) of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia.
The French official said Turkey’s decision to send more weapons and Syrian mercenaries into the country was doing nothing to achieve peace and in fact pushing Russia to increase its involvement.
He accused the Turkish navy of using their NATO call signals while accompanying Turkish vessels suspected of breaking a U.N. arms embargo to deliver weapons to Libya.
He cited a case in which he said Turkish naval ships acted aggressively towards a French warship on a NATO mission to check whether the Turkish vessel Cirkin was smuggling arms to Libya.
French officials said the Cirkin had switched off its tracking system, masked its ID number and refused to say where it was going. “It was an extremely aggressive act and cannot be the action of an ally who is working within NATO under the command of NATO,” the French defence official said.
The senior Turkish official rejected the accusation, saying French forces had sought to search a Turkish vessel in international waters “and this was not permitted”, and that Turkey had taken no provocative or aggressive action to prevent this. “However we expect allies to show the same understanding and sensitivity towards the Turkish navy and its presence.” (Reporting by John Irish in Paris with additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Tuvanand Orhan Coskun in Ankara Editing by Mark Heinrich)