Greece’s foreign minister has called off the first leg of a visit to Libya, refusing to disembark from his plane after landing in the capital of Tripoli, Greek authorities said. Instead, he flew to the city of Benghazi, in the country’s east.
The Greek foreign ministry said the incident on Thursday – effectively a snub of Libya’s western, Tripoli-based administration – was the result of a violation of protocol and agreed-on terms for the visit.
Tensions have been rising in the Mediterranean following a controversial preliminary maritime and gas deal between Turkey and the Tripoli administration.
Libya, which has been mired in turmoil since 2011 when longtime Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, has two rival administrations, in the country’s east and west.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was on a two-part trip that was to include a meeting with the president of Libya’s western, Tripoli-based government, Mohammad Younes Menfi. That was to be followed by a meeting in Benghazi with the east-based administration.
A terse statement from the Greek ministry indicated Dendias did not want to meet with his Tripoli counterpart, Najla Mangoush, yet she came to the airport to greet him.
“Ms Mangoush tried to impose on me by her presence at the airport to meet with her. As a result I interrupted the visit in Tripoli and we flew to Benghazi, where the schedule was followed,” the Greek minister said in the eastern city of Benghazi.
There, he delivered three small boxes of coronavirus vaccines and a 550,000-euro ($568,000) donation towards a World Food Programme reconstruction of the Benghazi port.
Mohamed Hamuda, a spokesman from the Tripoli-based government, said Mangoush’s presence at the airport was part of diplomatic conventions.
The Tripoli-Ankara preliminary maritime and gas deal signed last month has been rejected by both Greece and Egypt, which accuse Turkey of using the agreement to try to expand its influence in the Mediterranean. The deal includes the joint exploration of hydrocarbon reserves in Libya’s offshore waters.
During a Cairo visit last month, Dendias said the deal infringes on Greek maritime borders. His Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, said Libya’s western government led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah had no authority to make such deals, given that its mandate expired following Libya’s failure to hold nationwide elections in December last year.
Libya’s east-based parliament subsequently appointed a rival prime minister, Fathi Bashagha.
Meanwhile, Cairo and Athens have strengthened ties in recent years, including signing new maritime border agreements with Cyprus.
Relations between Athens and Ankara in turn, have sharply declined, with undersea gas and oil exploration rights a key part of the dispute. Turkey remains a prominent backer of Dbeibah.
In 2019, Turkey signed another controversial maritime border deal with Tripoli, granting it access to a contested economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The deal ignored the existence of several Greek islands, including Crete, which lies between Turkey and Libya. This reignited Turkey’s pre-existing tensions with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt over oil and gas drilling rights.