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US warplanes kill 41 people in attack on ‘prominent militant leader’ in Libya

The Pentagon said the target was Noureddine Chouchane, also known as Sabir, a Tunisian it described as a “senior facilitator” within ISIL who is wanted by authorities in Tunis in connection with a terrorist attack on that country’s Bardo museum last year.
Damage at the scene of an airstrike by US warplanes in Sabratha, Libya on February 19, 2016. Sabratha municipality media office/Handout via Reuters
Damage at the scene of an airstrike by US warplanes in Sabratha, Libya on February 19, 2016. Sabratha municipality media office/Handout via Reuters

US warplanes bombed an ISIL base in Libya on Friday, killing up to 41 people in what the Pentagon said was an attack on a prominent militant leader.

Bombs ripped through a farm compound on the edge of the coastal town of Sabratha, 60 kilometres west of Tripoli, in the early hours of the morning.

The Pentagon said the target was Noureddine Chouchane, also known as Sabir, a Tunisian it described as a “senior facilitator” within ISIL who is wanted by authorities in Tunis in connection with a terrorist attack on that country’s Bardo museum last year in which more than 20 people were killed.

It was the second American strike on ISIL in Libya in three months, following a raid on another of the extremists’ compounds in the eastern town of Derna in November.

Chouchane had a prominent role in the movement of foreign fighters from Tunisia to Libya and onwards, the Pentagon said, adding that it had yet to confirm his death.

“Destruction of the camp and Chouchane’s removal will eliminate an experienced facilitator and is expected to have an immediate impact on ISIL’s ability to facilitate its activities in Libya, including recruiting new ISIL members, establishing bases in Libya, and potentially planning external attacks on US interests in the region,” it said.

The attack was carried out in an operation in which Britain said it provided bases, without giving further details. It comes days after president Barack Obama declared his intention to attack ISIL in Libya whenever targets presented themselves.

“With respect to Libya, I have been clear from the outset that we will go after ISIL wherever it appears, the same way that we went after Al Qaeda wherever they appeared,” Mr Obama said on Tuesday.

Witnesses said the explosions lit up the sky around a farm compound at Qasr Tleby, on the town’s outskirts, at 3.45am.

Television pictures showed a large, devastated area of rubble interspersed with bodies. The Sabratha council reported 41 dead and six wounded being cared for in the town hospital.

Sabratha authorities said the compound was rented to foreigners and that machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades were found in the rubble.

The strikes come amid rising concern in Washington about the rise of ISIL in Libya and its potential to destabilise North Africa.

Since arriving in Libya from Syria, ISIL has set up bases around Sabratha and farther east at Derna and Sirte. Sirte has become its Libya headquarters, with the Pentagon estimating that 5,000-6,000 fighters are now in the country, many from abroad.

From Sirte, ISIL has now occupied 240 kilometres of coastline and last month attacked the nearby oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, setting storage tanks on fire.

Sirte has also witnessed ISIL atrocities. In January last year the extremist group staged a beachfront execution of 21 Christians, 20 of them Egyptian, triggering air strikes by Egypt.

The Pentagon said Chouchane had a central role in recruiting ISIL volunteers from Tunisia, bringing them to Libya for training, and then sending them across the region, mirroring Washington’s concerns that the North African country has become the militant group’s key hub.

While Friday’s strikes confirm America’s intention to bomb ISIL targets in Libya, Washington is also supporting a broader strategy of persuading the country’s rival governments to end their 20-month civil war and unite against the militants.

On Thursday the US issued a joint statement with allies including Britain, France, Germany and the UAE, urging finalisation of a government of national accord.

Both Libyas’s recognised parliament, the House of Representatives in Tobruk, and the rival Libya Dawn militia coalition in Tripoli have refused to accept the proposed unity government. But the joint statement warned that “continued division will benefit only Daesh and the other extremist groups that want to tear Libya apart”.

For the Pentagon, a united government would provide the ideal platform for eliminating ISIL in Libya, because the country’s myriad militias could unite in joint offensives against the militants, backed by air power.

Libyan combat units capable of tacking ISIL in Sirte have already been deployed. Both Libya Dawn’s 166 brigade, west of the city, and the government’s Petroleum Facilities Guard, holding oil ports to the east, have clashed with ISIL in recent months. They have also clashed with each other after an unsuccessful Libya Dawn offensive last year to capture the oil ports.

UN negotiators hope that the recognised parliament, meeting next week, will agree to the unity government plan, which is for the moment snagged on the issue of Tobruk’s army commander, Gen Khalifa Haftar. Parliament is demanding that he remains in his job, while Libya Dawn has branded him a terrorist and wants him removed. The general remains as popular among pro-government forces as he is unpopular with Libya Dawn, in a major test for UN negotiators.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: February 19, 2016 04:00 AM

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