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TRIPOLI — When is a diplomatic visit not a diplomatic visit? When the top politician involved doesn’t even leave the plane before flying off again.
That’s what happened Thursday when Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias landed in Tripoli in Libya, was informed that his counterpart — who has close ties with Turkey — was waiting for him, and ordered the pilot to take off again.
The quick diplomatic turnaround will likely further deteriorate the already strained relationship between Greece and the Tripoli administration.
Libya has for years been riven between the UN-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj, and the rebel General Khalifa Haftar, the Benghazi-based strongman of the east and leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA).
Turkey, Greece’s traditional foe, has close links with the GNA, and Ankara has supplied it with equipment and intelligence, helping thwart a year-long campaign by Haftar to take the capital.
Last month, Turkey signed a preliminary agreement with Libya’s Tripoli government to explore for oil and gas off the Libyan coast — without specifying whether the surveys would take place in waters south of Greece, where Athens says the Turks have no right to be.
Dendias at the time accused Turkey of exploiting “the turbulent situation in Libya to further destabilize security in the Mediterranean region and establish a regional hegemony.”
On this trip, Dendias was initially planning to visit only Benghazi but the rival government in Tripoli insisted that he stop by. The Greek minister agreed but on one condition, according to diplomatic officials: that he only meet Mohamed al-Menfi, chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and a former ambassador to Greece. Dendias did not want to be photographed with Najla Mangoush, Tripoli’s foreign minister and who signed the energy exploration deal with Turkey.
That was Plan A. Dendias needed a quick Plan B when his plane landed at an otherwise quiet airport and a large crowd of photographers was waiting for him. Also waiting was… Mangoush!
Quick as a flash, Dendias swirled his finger in the air, mimicking an airplane engine and indicating to the pilot that this particular visit was over before it had even begun.
The Libyans “assumed that if someone showed up, they would force a meeting,” a senior Greek official said. “No one can force us to meet anyone.”
However, to make things even more awkward, Dendias’ plane had to wait for around an hour on the tarmac before heading to Benghazi as Tripoli air-traffic control wouldn’t approve its flight plan.
“In a surprising situation … the Greek minister refused to get off his plane and returned to where he came from without any explanations,” the Libyan foreign ministry said. It added that it “deplores this behavior and will take appropriate diplomatic measures to preserve the sovereignty of Libya.”
By the time that statement was released, the Greeks were already back in Benghazi.