Mystery airstrikes target Libyan Islamist militias

AP News
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Posted: Sep 15, 2014 2:48 PM

CAIRO (AP) — Unidentified warplanes conducted four airstrikes on Monday near the Libyan capital of Tripoli, leaving one dead and five wounded, a spokesman for Libya's Islamist-allied militias and a militia commander said.

A series of mysterious airstrikes, which U.S. officials have previously said were carried out by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have reinforced the perception that Libya has become a proxy battleground for larger regional struggles -- with Turkey and Qatar backing the Islamist militias and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE supporting their opponents.

The specter of regional intervention has cast a pall over the increasingly fractured country, which was plunged into turmoil following the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi but gave rise to a patchwork of heavily armed and increasingly unruly militias.

Mohammed al-Gharyani, spokesman for the Libya Dawn alliance, said the airstrikes targeted Gharyan, 50 miles south of Tripoli. He said militiamen told residents to leave targeted areas.

A militia commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the strikes targeted Libya Dawn ammunition warehouses and weapons depots, and were aimed at weakening its hold on the capital.

An umbrella group for the capital's Islamist militias called the Operation Room for Tripoli Revolutionaries said the raid was carried out by Emirati warplanes and described it as "a failure."

Libya currently has two rival parliaments and governments. One is recently elected but based in Tobruk, where it moved after Islamist militias took control of both Tripoli and Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi. The previous Islamist-led parliament remains in Tripoli and is backed by the militias.

Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni on Sunday accused Qatar of interfering in Libya's affairs by sending shipments of weapons to Islamist-allied militias in Tripoli. He told Dubai-based Sky News Arabia that his government received reports of three planes loaded with weapons landing in Matiga air base, under the Islamist control.

He threatened to cut off relations with the tiny Gulf country, which until recently was hosting members of Egypt's now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group and is widely seen as backing it and other Islamists across the region.

Qatar rejected al-Thinni's accusations, with Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Rumaihi telling the state news agency that the allegations were "misleading and baseless." The Qatari statement noted that al-Thinni had said nothing about the reported Egyptian-UAE airstrikes.

The Islamist takeover of the capital followed weeks of fighting that forced nearly a quarter million Libyans to flee their homes. In the final days of the battle for Tripoli in August, a set of mystery airstrikes targeted militant positions near the airport. But the attacks failed to prevent the militias from taking control of the airport and cementing their hold on the capital.

U.S. officials have said that the August airstrikes were carried out jointly by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates --with Egypt providing logistical support for Emirati warplanes. The Emirates has refused to comment on the allegations, and Egyptian officials have repeatedly denied the claims.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all backed the anti-Islamist campaign of former army general Khalifa Hifter in the eastern city of Benghazi. But Hifter appears to have lost control of the city and is fighting on the outskirts.

Egypt, which shares a long border with Libya, views the rise of Islamist militias there with open concern and hostility, fearing they could be a source of fighters and weapons flowing across the border.

Egypt's current government came to power following the military overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, and it has waged a massive crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood group and other Islamist supporters.

With the United States building an international coalition to confront the radical Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, Egypt has been pressing for an expansion of the coalition's focus to battle Libya's militias as well.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri told an international security conference in Paris on Monday that the two conflicts were linked. Referring to the Islamic State group by its Arabic acronym "Daesh," Shukri said: "The international community should pay attention to other matters such as the proliferation of Daesh partners and similar groups carrying the same thoughts and dark goals, such as those in a country like Libya."