Eastern Libyan forces said Monday they have released a vessel with Turkish crew members seized over the weekend amid heightened tensions with Turkey, which supports the internationally-recognized Libyan government in Tripoli.
Ahmed al-Mosmari, a spokesman for the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), said they found no weapons on the vessel flying a Grenada flag, which was carrying a shipment of flour from Malta to the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria.
The vessel was seized "because it entered Libya's territorial waters without prior permission," the spokesman said.
The LNA, led by military commander Khalifa Haftar, seized the vessel on Saturday and took it into a Libyan port under its control for inspection.
Earlier on Nov. 27, Ankara and Tripoli reached two separate memoranda of understanding (MoU), one on military cooperation and the other on maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The maritime deal enables Turkey to secure its rights in the Mediterranean while preventing any fait accompli maneuvers by other regional states.
The memorandum asserts Turkey's rights in the Eastern Mediterranean in the face of unilateral drilling attempts by the Greek Cypriot administration, clarifying that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) also has rights to resources in the area.
Fellow regional actor, Greece, did not welcome the deal and even regarded it as a violation of its own rights, though international law deems otherwise. Athens later said it would expel its Libyan envoy Mohamed Younis AB Menfi from the country in response.
According to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, while a country can stretch its territorial waters only 12 nautical miles out to sea but when it comes to the exclusive economic zone, where it has the rights to fishing, mining and drilling, the area can extend for an additional 200 miles. However, if the maritime distance between the two countries is less than 424 miles, a bilateral deal is needed to determine a mutually agreed-upon dividing line for their respective exclusive economic zones.
Turkey has the longest shoreline in the Eastern Mediterranean, making it a natural candidate for seeking reserves in the region per international law. The presence of the Turkish Cypriot government in Northern Cyprus also strengthens Turkey's hand as the country defends the rights of Turkish Cypriots in the region and insists that their consent is needed for any type of drilling activities
The Turkish Parliament also approved the security and military deal with Libya's U.N.-supported government Saturday. The deal allows Turkey to provide military training and equipment at the request of the Libyan government that controls the capital, Tripoli, and some of the country's west.
Turkey has been backing the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj as it fights off a months-long offensive by Haftar's forces. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said Turkey could deploy troops to Libya in support of the GNA if a request is made.
Since the ousting and death of the longtime dictator, Muammar Gadhafi in 2011, two seats of power have emerged in Libya. Turkey, Qatar and Italy have been allied with Sarraj's government based in Tripoli, while Khalifa Haftar, who commands forces based in eastern Libya, is backed by France, Russia and key Arab countries, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.
On April 4, Hafter's forces launched an offensive to capture the capital Tripoli from GNA forces. Haftar's April push made early gains but has stalled on the edges of the capital in a bloody stalemate. The fighting has escalated in the past week after Haftar declared a "final" and decisive battle for the capital.
According to the latest U.N. figures Friday, the fighting has left at least 284 civilians dead and 363 wounded since the April 4 start of the armed conflict that has forced more than 140,000 Libyans to flee their homes.
Following the GNA's announcement over Turkey, the U.N. mission in Libya, UNSMIL, renewed its call for a political solution to the conflict.