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Deadly Libya Bombing May Be War Crime

Blood stains are seen at a detention center for mainly African migrants that was hit by an airstrike in the Tajoura suburb of Tripoli, Libya, July 3, 2019.
Blood stains are seen at a detention center for mainly African migrants that was hit by an airstrike in the Tajoura suburb of Tripoli, Libya, July 3, 2019.

The bombing in Libya's capital that killed at least 44 people, with some reports saying as many as 55, and injured more than 130 on Tuesday night may amount to a war crime, according to a United Nations envoy in Tripoli.

Outside the suburban Tripoli detention center early Wednesday, survivors watched investigators pick through the rubble after a long night outside with barely any food and water.

"We just want peace," said one Somali woman, taking cover under a tree as investigators searched for bodies well into the afternoon. "We went from Somalia to Yemen, then to Sudan and then came here. This is just like Somalia."

At the morgue in the Libyan capital, bodies were wrapped and prepared for forensic examination while injured people in the hospital were treated, some barely conscious.

Bags with bodies of migrants who died after an air strike hit a detention center for mainly African migrants in Tajoura are seen in Tripoli Central Hospital, Libya, July 3, 2019.

Survivors said the attack occurred about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday and that they had regularly heard drones hovering over the detention compound in recent weeks.

"At the beginning we heard faraway clashes, then we heard this strong bomb," said Saddam, an 18-year-old from Sudan who has been detained for a year after being caught attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

"We were banging on the doors and the security people came and let us out and we saw the building on fire," he said.


Tripoli officials attribute the attack to the forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a strongman who leads the military in eastern Libya.

Haftar's forces have been locked in battle for three months with the forces loyal to the internationally backed government in Tripoli. They are fighting for control of the city and the future of the Libyan government.

The war has now killed about 700 people and displaced 94,000. Last week, after Tripoli forces captured a strategic town, Haftar's forces threatened retaliation. Amnesty International says its research indicates there is a weapons storehouse near the destroyed detention center.

"This deadly attack which struck a detention center where at least 600 refugees and migrants were trapped in detention with no means of escape, and whose location was known to all warring parties, must be independently investigated as a war crime," Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International, said in a statement Wednesday.

Debris covers the ground and an emergency vehicle after an airstrike at a detention center in Tajoura, east of Tripoli in Libya, July 3, 2019. An airstrike hit the detention center for migrants, killing several.

The organization blamed the attackers for potentially deliberately targeting civilians. Amnesty also pointed to those who housed the detainees near what could be a military target, and also increasingly restrictive European migration policies that endanger refugees determined to flee to safety at any cost. Amnesty called the policies "callous."

The United States strongly condemned the "abhorrent" attack on the facility in Tajoura and called for peace.

"This tragic and needless loss of life, which impacted one of the most vulnerable populations, underscores the urgent need for all Libyan parties to de-escalate fighting in Tripoli and return to the political process, which is the only viable path to lasting peace and stability in Libya," said State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus in a statement.

Still moving

Outside the blasted-out detention center, some survivors said they had been displaced several times by war, violence and poverty before coming to Libya in the hopes of crossing the sea to Europe.

A migrant carries his belongings at a detention center for mainly African migrants, that was hit by an airstrike in the Tajoura suburb of Tripoli, Libya, July 3, 2019.

Libya has long been on a common if often deadly route from the Middle East and Africa to Europe. Nearly 600 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea attempting to cross to Europe this year alone.

"They were from Africa, Asia and Arab countries — Bangladesh, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger," said Tripoli Police Lt. Col. Nouradine Greetly, who heads the detention center.

Aid workers say detainees have the option to return to their home countries or apply for asylum in Libya, but many remain in detention centers, determined to continue their journey to Europe.

"I have to go to Europe," said Saddam, still hoping for the chance to catch another smuggler's boat, a year after he was first detained. "There is nothing for me here."