Turkey has arrested four of its nationals on suspicion of spying for France on conservative and religious groups, a pro-government newspaper reported on Monday.
The news came as tensions between the two NATO members have increased over their different positions on Libya and a recent incident between their naval warships in the Mediterranean.
According to the Sabah daily, Metin Ozdemir, a former employee of the French consulate’s security service told police he had gathered intelligence for the French intelligence service, the DGSE.
Ozdemir told police he had delivered information on 120 people, including imams, in return for monthly payments and the promise of a place in the French Foreign Legion, the paper reported.
Passing himself off as a member of the so-called ISIS terrorist group, he says he recruited three men: an employee of an Istanbul water company, a telecommunications worker and the manager of an Istanbul hotel.
The spy cell was put to work gathering information on conservative associations, religious groups and Diyanet, the public body that supervises religious affairs, Sabah reported.
After falling out with his French handlers Ozdemir approached the Turkish authorities, it added. The four men were arrested and will face trial at an unspecified date.
There has been no independent confirmation of Sabah’s story, but it has emerged at a time when relations France and Turkey are particularly strained.
Turkey, which backs the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in the ongoing conflict in Libya, has repeatedly accused France of favoring GNA rival, Khalifa Haftar, although Paris has denied this.
The two nations had a heated exchange last week after a naval incident in the Mediterranean in which France accused Turkish frigates of “extremely aggressive” behavior towards a French ship.
Turkey denied the accusation, saying the French vessel was at fault, and NATO has opened an investigation into the incident.