IN TURKEY, A LATE CRACKDOWN ON ISLAMIST FIGHTERS

turkey2Supporters of the Turkish prime minister wave Turkey’s national flag and the old Syrian flag. (AFP/Getty Images)

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By Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet | The Washington Post

Before their blitz into Iraq earned them the title of the Middle East’s most feared insurgency, the jihadists of the Islamic State treated this Turkish town near the Syrian border as their own personal shopping mall.

And eager to aid any and all enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey rolled out the red carpet.

In dusty market stalls, among the baklava shops and kebab stands, locals talk of Islamist fighters openly stocking up on uniforms and the latest Samsung smartphones. Wounded jihadists from the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front — an al-Qaeda offshoot also fighting the Syrian government — were treated at Turkish hospitals. Most important, the Turks winked as Reyhanli and other Turkish towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms across the border.

“Turkey welcomed anyone against Assad, and now they are killing, spreading their disease, and we are all paying the price,” said Tamer Apis, a politician in Reyhanli, where two massive car bombs killed 52 people last year. In a nearby city, Turkish authorities seized another car packed with explosives in June, raising fears of an Islamic State-inspired campaign to export sectarian strife to Turkey.

“It was not just us,” Apis said. “But this is a mess of Turkey’s making.”

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TURKEYA Turkish military armored vehicle patrols on the border of Turkey and Syria. (Umit Bektas /REUTERS)

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The U.S. military is back in action over the skies of Iraq, launching airstrikes against the Islamist militants who have taken control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. But for many months, the militants were able to grow in power partly by using the border region of a NATO member — Turkey — as a strategically vital supply route and entry point to wage their war.

Alarmed by the growing might of the Islamic State, Turkey has started cracking down. Working with the United States and European governments, Turkish officials have enacted new safeguards to detain foreign fighters trying to get into Syria and launched a military offensive aimed at curtailing the smuggling of weapons and supplies across the border.

But in a region engulfed by a broadening conflict, Turkey is also reaping what it sowed. It is engaging in border shootouts with rebels it once tactically aided. It is confronting spillover violence, a cutoff in its trade routes and a spreading wave of fear in Turkish towns as the Islamic State wins over defectors from rival opposition groups.

And despite the new measures, the Islamic State is still slipping through Turkish nets — raising doubts about international efforts to put a stranglehold on a radical Sunni group known for public crucifixions and the beheading of enemies.

“It is not as easy to come into Turkey anymore,” Abu Yusaf, a 27-year-old senior security commander for the Islamic State, said in a recent interview conducted in the back seat of a moving white Honda in Reyhanli. “I myself had to go through smugglers to get here, but as you see, there are still ways and methods.”

Wearing a polo shirt and white baseball cap to blend in on the more secular streets of Turkey, Yusaf, the nom de guerre of the European-born fighter who joined the group 21 / 2 years ago, added: “We don’t believe in countries . . . breaking and destroying all borders is our aim. What matters are Islam and a Sunni reign.”

Asked about the United States’ role in the region, Yusaf said, “We don’t fear the U.S., we only fear God. We fight whoever are fighting us. If the U.S. hits us with flowers, we will hit them back with flowers. But if they hit us with fire, we will hit them back with fire, also inside their homeland. This will be the same with any other Western country.”

For Turkey, it was not supposed to be this way.

Initially a close Assad ally, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke with Damascus after the Syrian leader launched a bloody assault on opponents in 2011. Erdogan quickly emerged as a leading voice calling for international action to topple the Syrian leader.

But for Erdogan, a charismatic autocrat once filled with notions of building a neo-Ottoman sphere of influence across the Middle East, the move to tactically support a broad swath of the Syrian opposition has backfired, resulting in one of a series of recent setbacks for him at home and abroad.

During its push into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June, the Islamic State seized 80 Turkish hostages — including a gaggle of diplomats — 41 of whom are still being held. More than 1 million refugees have poured into Turkey since the start of the Syrian conflict, costing the government more than $3 billion. Billions more have been lost in business and trade across its borders with Syria and Iraq.

“This is destroying us,” said Huseyin Surucu, owner of Rey-Tur, a Reyhanli transport company that has seen its business plunge by 60 percent since the start of the Syrian conflict. One bomb blast that hit the city last year went off several feet from his company, killing a family friend. “We are all afraid because we know more trouble is coming.”

Turkish officials have publicly offered support for more mainstream factions of the Syrian opposition. Yet only in more recent stages of the conflict has it labeled some extremist factions as terrorist groups. And given the difficulty of accurately assessing loyalties among the opposition, Turkey indiscriminately allowed weapons and fighters to flow across the border, Western diplomats, local officials and security experts say.

He conceded that the recent crackdown had made it more difficult to continue using Turkey as a supply route. But he added that the group had grown so strong in Iraq — where it won fast allies among the Sunni tribes — that it no longer needed to rely on the Turkish border.

“Now we are getting enough weapons from Iraq, and there is enough to buy even within Syria,” he said. “There is no real need to get things from outside anymore.”

Of massive concern are thousands of increasingly radicalized foreign fighters, including many carrying U.S. and European passports, who have gone to fight in Syria. One senior Turkish official who declined to be identified blamed Western allies for not fully cooperating in the hunt to stop “the wrong ones” from crossing the border.

Citing privacy laws, for instance, European governments would often provide limited information to Turkish intelligence about suspects. “They were not giving us all the information they had,” the official said.

But that has changed. Since the fall of Mosul in June, the Europeans and Americans have been sharing more details, he said, and the Turks have stepped up detentions of suspected foreign fighters. The Turks refuse to disclose the number of recent arrests and repatriations.

Meanwhile, Turkish calculations in the Syrian conflict are fast evolving. The Turks have started cooperative talks with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish separatist group whose brothers in arms have fought a long guerrilla war against Turkey. The reason for the possible new alliance: The PYD controls a swath of Syria and is fighting against the Islamic State.

But Turkey’s about-face may be too little, too late.

Yusaf, the Islamic State commander who traveled to Reyhanli from Syria for an interview with The Washington Post, suggested that the group had the Turks to thank in part for its current success.

“We used to have some fighters — even high-level members of the Islamic State — getting treated in Turkish hospitals,” he said. “And also, most of the fighters who joined us in the beginning of the war came via Turkey, and so did our equipment and supplies.”

Meanwhile, Turkey remains a lucrative market for bootlegged gasoline coming from Syria and Iraq, some of which is almost surely coming from areas controlled by the Islamic State. In Haji Pasha, a Turkish town in the shadow of the hilly Syrian border, dozens of farmers and laborers have switched jobs. Now, they are gasoline smugglers.

On a recent drive through town, Turks on tractors were pulling wagonloads of plastic 60-liter tanks to fill up with smuggled Syrian and Iraqi gasoline being sold for a fraction of legal retail prices. Asked whether the gas
was coming from Islamic State-controlled zones, a 35-year-old businessman-turned-smuggler who gave his name as Takim, said: “Here, we do not ask those kinds of questions.”

New sweeps by Turkish authorities have prevented smugglers from hauling Syrian and Iraqi gasoline in over land. So ingenious townspeople have built dozens of makeshift underground pipelines that run under the border. On a recent afternoon, plumes of smoke billowed up from one pipeline being destroyed by the Turkish military.

“That’s okay,” said Tahir, 39, another self-described smuggler, standing on the roof of a friend’s house to watch the Turkish troops in action. “We’ve got many more.”

ERDOGAN WINS TURKEY PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be Turkey’s next president after being declared the winner of the country’s presidential election. With more than 50% of the vote in his favour, there will be no need for a second round run-off vote.

Erdogan’s main opposition rival Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (CHP and MHP) has conceded defeat and congratulated Erdogan, the current Turkish Prime Minister, who has won around 52 percent of the vote according to the latest results, 13 percent more than Ihsanoglu. Selehattin Demirtas (People’s Democratic Party) is in third place with less than 10 percent of the vote.

THE NEW SULTAN: ERDOGAN’S TRIUMPHS MAKE DRIFT TOWARDS AUTHORITARIANISM MORE LIKELY

The Independent Editorial

Transfixed by the chaos engulfing swathes of the Middle East, it is no surprise that the West has not given Turkey’s first direct presidential election the attention it merits – and would have received in more peaceable times. This is a pity because the tectonic plates are shifting fast in the country, which is a crucial link between East and West, and the changes may be both permanent and troubling.

After yesterday’s first round, in which he won more than 50 per cent of the vote, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the all-powerful Prime Minister since 2002, is almost certainly heading for several more years in power under a new label, giving him time to complete the construction of what he calls the “new Turkey”. The polls put him well ahead of his two rivals, a septuagenarian ex-diplomat and a young ethnic Kurd, which is not surprising, as the public has not learnt much about either candidate. Figures for last month showed that while Mr Erdogan received 533 minutes of airtime on state television to make his pitch, his two rivals got three minutes and 45 seconds respectively.

That farcically lopsided allocation of media coverage is only one of many indications that Turkey is morphing into a Russian-style “shell” democracy, in which managed plebiscites mask the essentially autocratic character of a system containing few or no checks and balances.

Like Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s strongman specialises in the rhetoric of “us and them”; in his case, railing against a strange and unlikely combination of Jews and supporters of the US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen, who, he insists, are plotting to destroy him. Lest anyone dismiss this as hot air, it should be noted that Mr Erdogan has made good use of these alleged conspiracies to ram through key changes, purging institutions of his opponents, starting with the army and police. When he began putting generals on trial, Western governments were inclined to applaud, seeing the Turkish armed forces as over-fond of politics and their own privileges. But the purges have continued to the point where the only serious resistance to Mr Erdogan’s whims now comes from the judges, who in April bravely struck down his attempt to ban the use of social networks.

This is where Turkey’s foreign friends should really start to worry, because if – or rather when – he becomes head of state, Mr Erdogan will be able to nominate judges and sap the Supreme Court’s ability to oppose him. It gets worse, because Mr Erdogan also plans to transform the hitherto largely ceremonial presidency into the beating heart of government, with the power to appoint ministers and dissolve parliament.

If Mr Erdogan gets away with all this, it will be because he has presided over unparalleled economic growth and – equally crucially – has championed the restoration of Turkey’s Sunni Muslim identity, which is a hugely popular cause among the religious masses. As the advocate of both God and Mammon at the same time, he is in a strong position. Abroad, his increasingly eccentric behaviour is forgiven because he also appears to deliver stability, which, in the eyes of Washington, is a precious commodity.

No one begrudges Turkey its economic boom and new sense of swagger, but it is unfortunate that these gains have come at the expense of the hope that Turkey might develop along different lines. A few years ago, Britain was energetically championing Turkish membership of the European Union on the grounds that Mr Erdogan had showed how it was possible to synthesise Islam and Europe’s democratic values. That is not a claim that anyone outside Turkey is likely to make in future.

ERDOGAN’S ACHILLES’ HEEL

Why the Prime Minister Will Win the Election, but Lose the Economy

Erdogan supporters wave flags in a boat in Istanbul, August 3, 2014.

Erdogan supporters wave flags in a boat in Istanbul, August 3, 2014. (Murad Sezer / Courtesy Reuters)
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Over the course of last year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has surmounted some major obstacles. He crushed urban protests last summer. He cracked down on the followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen within the police and judiciary over the fall and winter. Electorally as well, Erdogan seems invincible: On Sunday, when Turkish voters head to the polls to elect a new president — the first to be chosen by popular vote — Erdogan is set to win in a landslide.

Erdogan has vowed to expand presidential power. He does not hide his ambition to become Turkey’s second founding father; in fact, he seems to aspire to be the anti-Atatürk, that is, to remake the secular republic that Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, built. Erdogan has vowed to raise “pious generations,” and frequently refers to a historic “mission” that he, “God willing,” will soon fulfill. His words are not empty. For one, the ongoing changes to Turkey’s secular education system are conspicuous; state-run secondary schools across Turkey are quickly becoming clerical institutions.

Still, it is not Islamist ideology that has sustained Erdogan’s power. It is the economy. Voters have kept him and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in office because the economic benefits the party has brought have outweighed other considerations. For example, waves of international capital during the last decade have led to booms in public and private consumption and construction. These have kept the Turkish economy growing.

The material foundations of Erdogan’s power, however, are not stable. Rahmi Koc, the honorary chairman of Koc Holding, Turkey’s biggest industrial conglomerate, recently warned that “The most important structural problem Turkey faces is its excessive reliance on foreign capital inflows.” Income levels have ceased to rise, and economic growth based on consumption and construction is usually not sustainable in the long run. In short, Turkey has become stuck in the classic middle-income trap. And the way out is well known: increase productivity, which requires a better educated population; encourage innovation, which requires a free intellectual atmosphere; and increase female participation in the workforce. Turning out more clerics than scientists, muzzling free speech, and urging, as Erdogan recently did, young women not to postpone marriage because of studies, is not going to help the Turkish economy advance.

By undermining Turkey’s economy in the long term, Erdogan’s religious policies will eventually put him at odds with some of his most important backers: Istanbul-based big business and the religiously conservative business community in Turkey’s heartland, Anatolia. In the short term, things don’t look great either.

The relationship between Istanbul-based big business — which is culturally Westernized — and Erdogan has been uneasy for a long time. In 2008, Erdogan asked the public to stop reading the newspapers that belonged to business magnate Aydin Dogan’s Dogan Media Group. In 2009, the government fined the group an unprecedented $2.5 billion after a tax audit. Last year, tax auditors (accompanied by the police) raided three major companies belonging to Koc Holding, which is active in the energy, automotive, shipping, defense, and consumer durables sectors. What triggered the move was the fact that a hotel that belongs to Koc Holding had given refuge to people fleeing from police crackdown on peaceful protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park.

What is new and more significant is the strain in the relationship between Erdogan and the Islamic-oriented business community in Anatolia. For one, the AKP government’s Sunni sectarian impulse has cost the Anatolia business community its most important markets in the Middle East. For example, Turkey’s support of the Sunni Islamist cause in Syria has not only aggravated the civil war there, but has also led to the emergence of jihadist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq. As a consequence, Turkey has lost what used to be its second-most important export market. (Turkey’s exports to Iraq totaled $11.9 billion in 2013, second only to its exports to Germany, which came in at $13.3 billion.)

Turkey’s adoption of the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its ideologically driven enmity toward Israel have not made things easier. With the route through Iraq cut off after ISIS’ advances, Turkish exporters need access to the Israeli and Egyptian ports of Ashdod and al-Arish to reach the Gulf markets through Jordan. Since they are no longer welcome there, though, they have had to start looking for emergency routes through Iran.

In addition to the old Middle Eastern trading partners, Turkish businesses also need new markets, foreign know-how, and foreign investment. In July, the Chairman of the Turkish Chambers of Commerce, Rifat Hisarciklioglu, a pro-AKP conservative, visited the United States. He pleaded with U.S. authorities to include Turkey in the free trade agreement that the United States and the European Union are negotiating. His U.S. interlocutors gave him the cold shoulder and advised him to try to convince the Europeans first. Hisarciklioglu told accompanying Turkish journalists that the only thing people in Washington wanted to talk about was the rise of militant Islam in the Middle East and Turkey’s role in it. That message is bound to worry conservative business community in Turkey.

In fact, concerns about Erdogan’s direction have led these very people to rally around Abdullah Gul, the outgoing president. Gul was given an enthusiastic welcome at a Ramadan dinner reception hosted by the Turkish Chambers of Commerce last month. The standing ovation was reported to have lasted half an hour. During his tenure, Gul took care to not openly break ranks with Erdogan. On several occasions, though, he let it be known that he would have favored more moderate policies in line with the interests of the business community, which has a stake in good relations with the West.

Conservative businessmen and others within the ranks of the AKP have started to push for Gul to become party leader and prime minister after Erdogan takes over the presidency. And for his part, Gul has dropped several hints that he aspires to continue to play a central role in politics. “I am going to continue to serve my people after this as well. Let’s see how I’m going to do it,” he told a gathering of businessmen. But the general assumption in Turkish political circles is that Erdogan, sensing competition, wants Gul to stay as far away from the AKP as possible. Erdogan has said that he is going to be a “sweating” president who will make full use of his prerogatives, which was seen as a thinly veiled criticism of Gul’s presidential record of restraint.

If there is a struggle for the control of the AKP after Erdogan leaves the prime minister job to become president, Erdogan is certain to prevail. If he wins in the first round of voting with more than 50 percent, he will have such a strong popular mandate that no one will be able to contest his continued hold over the AKP and the government. In the longer run, however, things are bound to work out differently.

Gul cannot match Erdogan’s popular mandate, but he speaks for interest groups that have historically been decisive in politics. In the speech at the reception hosted by the Turkish Chambers of Commerce, Gul observed that “the expectations of the private sector” and the “demands that originate from Anatolia are going to decide the course of politics.” These remarks are somewhat self-serving: After all, the “demands from Anatolia” evidently include him taking over the AKP. But Gul is correct when he notes that the expectations of the private sector have a way of changing Turkey’s course.

The first time they did so was in 1980. After staging a coup, the military implemented a comprehensive program of economic liberalization. The business community had been demanding these reforms for years, but the civilian government had been unable to implement them because of opposition by the left and the trade unions. As the Turkish economy suffocated, social tensions and violence escalated. The military stepped in, and the economic liberalization it pushed forward laid the groundwork for Turkey’s economic ascent.

The second occasion came at the beginning of the 2000s. In those days, the Turkish business community and international lenders demanded further economic liberalization and political democratization. Runaway inflation and enormous budget deficits had brought Turkey to the brink of financial collapse at the end of the 1990s. The ruling leftist–rightist coalition launched a new set of policies designed to meet these expectations, but then crumbled politically. The AKP subsequently came to power, backed by the United States, the EU, and the business community, which hoped that the party would provide political stability and fix Turkey’s economic mess. And, when the time came, the AKP successfully and quickly implemented the reforms.

In Turkey, the relationship between the state — the military and the bureaucracy — and the business community has been symbiotic. Business interests have been paramount; the state has looked after them since the founding of the republic. Moreover, Turkey’s integration in the global economy since the 1980s has made the state even more sensitive to the dynamics of capitalism. Over time, however, the relationship between economic political freedoms has changed. In 1980, business interests were served by an authoritarian regime. Two decades later, however, business had come to have a vested interest in democratization. Economic necessities forced the Turkish government to introduce political liberalization, in order to gain the confidence and support of the European Union.

The fact that the Turkish economy has continued to grow while the country has relapsed into authoritarianism has created an illusion that business can continue to thrive in an illiberal environment. But that illusion has already started to crack. In Turkey, state authoritarianism and capitalism no longer go together. In this light, Erdogan’s victory is destined to be a pyrrhic one.

TURKEY’S ERDOGAN LASHES OUT AT ISRAEL AT ELECTION RALLY

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By Dasha Afanasieva and Humeyra Pamuk

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel on Sunday of deliberately killing Palestinian mothers and warned it would “drown in the blood it sheds”, pulling foreign policy to centre stage as a presidential race enters its final week.

Addressing hundreds of thousands of supporters at his biggest rally so far ahead of the Aug. 10 election, Erdogan again likened Israel’s actions to those of Hitler, comments that have already led Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accuse him of anti-Semitism and drawn rebuke from Washington.

“Just like Hitler, who sought to establish a race free of all faults, Israel is chasing after the same target,” Erdogan told the sea of cheering supporters at an Istanbul arena.

“They kill women so that they will not give birth to Palestinians; they kill babies so that they won’t grow up; they kill men so they can’t defend their country … They will drown in the blood they shed,” he said.

Erdogan’s comments drew a sharp rebuke from a Jewish leader in the United States, who called the Turkish prime minister “the Joseph Goebbels of our time,” referring to Hitler’s chief propagandist.

“The time has come for world leaders to say that he has now crossed a line, and has crossed a line into the area of anti-Semitism and the world won’t tolerate it,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, told Reuters.

Pro-Palestinian sentiment runs high in mostly Sunni Muslim Turkey, and protesters have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to demonstrate against Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

Over 50 million Turks are expected to vote next Sunday, electing their president directly for the first time. Two polls last month put Erdogan on 55-56 percent, a 20-point lead over the main opposition candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.

Ihsanoglu, a diplomat and academic who was at the helm of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for nine years, has accused Erdogan of populism with his anti-Israeli rhetoric.

“I think the foreign policy issues are used in domestic politics to rally people, but it creates problems and pushes governments into corners,” Ihsanoglu, who has run a much lower-key campaign than Erdogan, told Reuters in an interview last week.

Kurdish candidate Selahattin Demirtas, running a distant third in the polls, urged Erdogan on Sunday to cut economic and military ties with Israel instead of “screaming and shouting”. Turkey was once Israel’s closest regional ally.

“Forget the shouting … If you want to provide help to the Palestinian people, stop fooling the people. With a serious boycott, let’s all together stop the Israeli state’s policies of massacres,” he told tens of thousands of supporters at a rally that was also held on the Asian side of Istanbul.

Israel began its offensive against Gaza on July 8 following a surge of cross-border rocket salvoes by Hamas and other guerrillas. Sunday’s fighting pushed the Gaza death toll given by Palestinian officials to 1,775, most of them civilians. Israel has confirmed that 64 soldiers have died in combat, while Palestinian rockets have also killed three civilians in Israel.

HISTORIC VOTE

Erdogan began his speech by reciting all 40 lines of the Turkish national anthem to roars from supporters who waited hours for him in scorching heat in the newly-built rally arena in Istanbul’s Maltepe district.

Local media said more than 4,600 buses and 75 boats had carried his supporters to the site from across Istanbul.

“August 10 will be a cornerstone,” Erdogan said in a speech broadcast live on a dozen national television channels.

“Do you know what you will say to your children, to your grandchildren in the future? That you have voted for the first president that the people voted for,” he said.

Erdogan may not yet have engineered the full presidential system he wants for Turkey. But he has made clear that the direct nature of this vote will enable him to exercise stronger powers than past incumbents who were appointed by parliament to a role that was largely ceremonial.

A “council of wise men” – made up partly of close allies in his current cabinet – is likely to help oversee top government business, senior officials have told Reuters, effectively relegating some ministries to technical and bureaucratic roles.

Erdogan’s rival say his domination of the Turkish media and his profile as a sitting prime minister have made for an unfair race. Both Ihsanoglu and Demirtas have challenged him to a live televised debate, which has so far met with no public response.

“The earth and sky are full of your posters,” Demirtas told his rally on Sunday. “You are experiencing a boom in confidence, so why are you scared of a two-hour TV show?”

U.S., TURKEY EVACUATE STAFF FROM TRIPOLI

U.S. evacuates Libya embassy after ‘free-wheeling militia violence’

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By Patrick Markey

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – The United States evacuated its embassy in Libya on Saturday, driving diplomats across the border into Tunisia under heavy military escort after escalating clashes broke out between rival militias in Tripoli.

Security in the Libyan capital has deteriorated following two weeks of clashes between brigades of former rebel fighters who have pounded each other with rockets and artillery fire in southern Tripoli near the embassy compound.

The violence is the worst seen in Tripoli and in eastern Benghazi since the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Western governments fear Libya is teetering toward becoming a failed state just three years after the NATO-backed war ended his one-man rule.

Three F-16 fighters provided air support and Osprey aircraft carrying Marines flew overhead the U.S. convoy as a precaution, but there were no incidents during the five-hour drive from Tripoli to Tunisia, U.S. officials said.

“Security has to come first. Regrettably, we had to take this step because the location of our embassy is in very close proximity to intense fighting and ongoing violence between armed Libyan factions,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.

U.S. sources familiar with the matter said there were about eight U.S. diplomats and 200 or more U.S. security personnel in Libya and all had been evacuated.

A Reuters reporter outside the embassy later saw no sign of movement or personnel on the perimeter gate of the compound, which lies a few kilometers from the airport.

Since one militia attacked Tripoli airport two weeks ago, fighting has killed at least 50 people in the capital, shut down most international flights and forced the United Nations and Turkey to pull out their diplomatic staff.

Tripoli was quieter after the evacuation. But at least 25 people were also killed in a day of clashes between Libyan special forces and Islamist militants who are entrenched in the eastern city of Benghazi, security and hospital sources said.

Speaking to reporters in Paris before holding talks on the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described Libya’s situation of “free-wheeling militia violence” as a real risk to U.S. staff with clashes around the embassy.

Britain’s foreign office on Saturday also urged British nationals to leave by commercial means, due to “ongoing and greater intensity fighting in Tripoli and wider instability throughout Libya.”

The battle for control of Tripoli International Airport is the latest eruption in a rivalry among bands of ex-fighters who once battled side by side against Gaddafi. Since then, they have turned against each other in the scramble for control.

Since the 2011 fall of Tripoli, fighters from the western town of Zintan and allies have controlled the area including the international airport, while rivals loyal to the port city of Misrata entrenched themselves in other parts of the capital.

SENSITIVE ISSUE

The State Department spokeswoman said embassy staff would return to Tripoli once it was deemed safe. Until then, embassy operations would be conducted from elsewhere in the region and Washington. Security in Libya is an especially sensitive subject for the United States because of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, in which militants killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

The attack also brought political fallout for President Barack Obama, with Republicans saying his administration did not provide sufficient overall security, did not respond quickly to the attack and then tried to cover up its shortcomings.

Ed Royce, Republican chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told CNN on Saturday the administration needed to get “more engaged on the ground with the factions in Libya” to help bring the violence under control.

“I think they’re on the right track (now) but late into the game in terms of trying to bring factions together and use U.S. leverage in order to try to work this out,” Royce said.

A Libyan militant suspected of involvement in the 2012 attack, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, was captured in Libya last month and brought to the United States. He has pleaded not guilty.

But three years after Gaddafi’s demise, Libya’s transition to democracy is faltering, and its fragile government and nascent armed forces are unable to impose authority over the brigades of former fighters.

Many ex-fighters on the government payroll as semi-official security forces, but often pay little heed to the central government, each brigade claiming to be a legitimate force and the successors of the 2011 revolution.

Heavily armed, they have sided with competing political forces vying to shape the future of Libya in the messy steps since the end of Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.

Libya’s Western partners fear the OPEC oil-producing country is becoming increasingly polarized between two main groupings of competing militia brigades and their political allies.

One side is grouped around Zintan and their Tripoli allies, the Qaaqaa and al-Sawaiq brigades, which are loosely tied to the National Forces Alliance political movement in the parliament.

Opposing them is a faction centered around the more Islamist-leaning Misrata brigades and allied militias who side with the Justice and Construction Party, a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

ISRAEL EVACUATES DIPLOMATIC FAMILIES IN TURKEY FOLLOWING ATTACKS

TURKEY2Pro-Palestine protesters took to the streets of Turkey on Thursday, following Israel’s decision to launch a ground operation in Gaza.Hurriyet TV

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By Ludovica Iaccino | International Business Times

Israel has decided to evacuate the families of diplomats in Turkey, after violence erupted during pro-Palestine manifestations.

Palestine suppoprters pelted the Israeli diplomatic missions in Ankara and Istanbul with stones, following Israel’s decision to launch a ground invasion into Gaza on Thursday evening.

Several Turkish deputies also rallied in support of Palestinians.

Demonstrators waved Turkish and Palestinian flags, chanting slogans such as “Hail to the resistance from Istanbul to Gaza,” and “Murderer Israel, get out of Palestine,” the Hurriyet Daily News reported.

Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) deputy Murat Yıldırım, who took part in the protests in Ankara, said: “the occupying Israel has made a bloodbath of Palestine by bombing them for the past 15 days.”

Israel announced the beginning of a ground operation to target terror tunnels on Thusday evening.

According to a statement by Israel Defence Forces, the ground invasion is part of the already existing Operation Protective Edge, launched on 8 July to restore calm in southern Israel.

At least 23 Palestinians – including three children – have been killed since the ground offensive started, bringing the total death toll to 264 Palestinians.

Gaza health ministry spokesman said a hospital in Beit Lahia, where 400 children were taking shelter, has been shelled by Israeli military.

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