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BREAKING NEWS: Libya migrant centre attack amounts to war crime: UN envoy

UN’s Libya envoy denounces attack that killed dozens in a detention centre in Tripoli and is blamed on Haftar’s forces.

The United Nations envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, has condemned an air raid on a migrant detention centre in Tripoli that killed dozens of people, saying that the attack “clearly amounts to the level of a war crime”. 

The air attack in the early hours of Wednesday intensified concerns concerns about the European Union’s policy of teaming up with Libyan militias to block refugees and migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, which often leaves them at the mercy of brutal traffickers or stranded in horrible conditions inside squalid detention centers near the front lines.

It could also lead to greater pressure on renegade General Khalifa Haftar, whose forces launched an offensive to seize the capital in April. The Tripoli-based UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) blamed pro-Haftar forces of carrying out the attack on the detention camp.

According to the UN Support Mission in Libya, the air raid killed at least 44 people and wounded more than 130.

“The absurdity of this ongoing war today has led this odious bloody carnage to its most hideous and most tragic consequences,” it said in a statement, urging the international community “to denounce this crime and apply appropriate penalties on those who ordered, carried out and provided arms for this operation in a flagrant violation to the international humanitarian law and the simplest humanitarian norms and values”.

‘Horrific tragedy’

The detention centre, which is located next to a military camp in the eastern suburb of Tajoura, houses more than 600 people, but the part that was hit held some 150 male refugees and migrants from African countries such as Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.

“This crime came after the statements of the air force commander of Haftar’s Libyan National Army, Muhammad al-Manfour, and therefore it is he who bears its legal and moral responsibility,”  the GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha told al-Wasat state radio.

On Monday, Manfour said aerial bombardment will be stepped up because “traditional means” to “liberate Tripoli” had been exhausted, and urged residents to stay away from what he called “confrontation areas”.

Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Tripoli, said there were fears the death toll could rise as rescue teams were still searching for survivors to transfer them to medical centres on Wednesday.

“Migrants who survived the attack are in a state of panic worried about what will happen to them next following the destruction of the detention centre,” he said.

“Many of them were stranded in front of the detention centre until this morning. Others were taken to the medical centres.”

‘Urgent evacuation’

Haftar’s offensive threatens to plunge Libya into another bout of violence on the scale of the 2011 conflict that overthrew longtime leader Moammar Gaddafi and led to his death.

“This is a horrific tragedy that should never have happened,” Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the Mediterranean and Africa at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Al Jazeera from Geneva.

He added that the UNHCR had warned of the dangers faced by the detainees at Tajoura some two months ago when another air raid damaged the centre’s roof and wounded two people.

“We called for an urgent evacuation then; they remained detained inside that centre and sadly people have paid the tragic price of that with their life last night”, Yaxley said.

“These are refugees, many of them, who left war and persecution and have fled neighbouring countries in the hopes of finding safety and have instead found themselves held in terrible conditions inside these detention centres – but also now, no longer have their physical safety guaranteed either. We need to evacuate people in these detention centres out as a matter of urgency.”

Wounded migrants lie on hospital beds after an air strike hit a detention center for mainly African migrants in Tajoura, in Tripoli Central Hospital

Wounded migrants and refugees were taken to hospitals following the attack [Ismail Zitouny/Reuters]

Key refugee departure point

Libya is a key departure point for migrants and refugees from Africa and Arab countries trying to reach Italy by boat, but many get picked up by the Libyan coastguard, which is supported by the European Union.

Air raid on Libya migrant camp in Tripoli

Centre officials blamed the raid on Haftar’s forces [Mahmud Turkia/AFP]

Thousands are being held in government-run detention centres in what human rights groups say are often inhuman conditions.

Tajoura, east of Tripoli’s centre, is home to several military camps of forces allied to Tripoli-based GNA.

An LNA official denied the forces had hit the detention centre, saying militias allied to Tripoli had shelled it after a precision air raid by the LNA on a camp, according to Reuters news agency.

The LNA, which controls much of eastern and southern Libya,  has failed to take Tripoli in three months of fighting and last week lost its main forward base in Garyan, which was taken back by Tripoli forces.

The African Union (AU) condemned the air raid and demanded those responsible be held accountable.

In a statement on Wednesday, AU Commision Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat called for an “independent investigation to be conducted to ensure that those responsible for this horrific crime of innocent civilians, be brought to account”.

Mahamat urged the international community to “redouble efforts”  to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table.

The UN’s mission in Libya has said around 3,500 migrants and refugees held in detention centres near the combat zone are at risk.

Yaxley said a new policy was needed that would see an end to the return of refugees to the North African country.

“No refugee should be returned to Libya at this time,” he said, calling for a comprehensive review “that looks at the issues all across the routes the refugees and migrants are travelling”.

“We also need to address the situation of the boat crossings on the Mediterranean – the numbers are down significantly compared to previous years, so it’s a perfectly manageable situation.

“We need to stop seeing what we have now where boats carrying rescued passengers are left at sea for days on end and there is a political back and forth among states about who will receive them; we need to address this as a humanitarian issue with a regional approach that brings passengers to shores quickly and safely and shares responsibility for hosting them.”

Who's fueling the fighting in Libya?


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