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Dozens killed in air strike on Libyan migrant detention centre

The UN had called in May for the centre in Tripoli's suburbs to be evacuated after a projectile landed less than 100 metres away
A woman collects her belongings from the Tajura detention centre following Tuesday's air strike (Reuters) 

An air strike late on Tuesday hit a detention centre used to hold people rescued or intercepted while trying to reach Europe in a suburb of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, killing at least 44 people and seriously injuring at least 130 others, the United Nations mission to Libya has said.

UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame condemned the strike, saying it "clearly amounts to the level of a war crime".

"The absurdity of this ongoing war has today reached its most heinous form and tragic outcome with this bloody, unjust slaughter," Salame said in a statement on Wednesday.

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UN refugee agency spokesman Charlie Yaxley said it could not confirm who launched the attack on the centre, which held some 600 people.

The Tripoli-based government said in a statement that dozens of people had been killed and wounded in the air strike which it blamed on the "war criminal Khalifa Haftar".

On Monday, Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which is allied to a parallel government in the east, said it would start heavy air strikes on targets in Tripoli after "traditional means" of war had been exhausted.

An LNA official denied his force had hit the detention centre, saying militias allied to Tripoli had shelled it after a precision air strike by the LNA on a camp.

'Many people dead on the floor'

The attack occurred in the Tajura area of the city, where the detention centre is located next to a military camp.

The UN refugee agency had already called in May for the detention centre to be evacuated after a projectile landed less than 100 metres away, injuring two people.

"The situation is very bad, we are so sad for this air strike," Malek Mersek, spokesman for state emergency medical services, told Middle East Eye.

Tripoli map

"Many migrants have been killed, from several nationalities, and we are still supporting medical centres to provide medical services for the survivors.

"Now nobody is in the detention centre. They are in facilities to be treated.

"Yesterday (Tuesday night) when we arrived the situation was terrible. There was blood everywhere inside, many people dead on the floor.

"There were no children among the dead, and no women as far as I know at the moment.

"The detention centre is near the clashes area. Now we [have] evacuated them to other detention centres."

UN, EU call for investigation

UN General Antonio Guterres expressed outrage and said the "horrendous" attack deserves an independent investigation, his spokesman said.

The UN chief "condemns this horrendous incident in the strongest terms," said a statement from his spokesman.

He "calls for an independent investigation of the circumstances of this incident, to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice, noting that the United Nations had provided exact coordinates of the detention centre to the parties."

Similarly, the European Union - as well as Turkey and Qatar - called for an independent probe, while France urged a "de-escalation" and the Arab League a "halt" to fighting between Haftar and GNA forces.

"Those responsible should be held to account", EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini, enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn and migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said in a statement.

The UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are seen as Haftar's key supporters while he accuses Turkey and Qatar of supplying weapons to his rivals.

Diplomats told Reuters that the UN Security Council will meet later on Wednesday to disucss the attack.

Bloodstained walls

Most of those held in the camps are from other African countries. The Libyan health ministry said that those injured in the attack included people from Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Mauritania and Somalia, as well as from Bangladesh.

The names and nationalities of those killed have not yet been released.

Most of those being held in Tajura had attempted to cross the Mediterranean to Europe aboard boats and were rescued or intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, which returns all those it picks up to the detention centres.

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"Some people were wounded, and they died on the road, on their way running, and some people are still under the debris so we don't know what to say," said Othman Musa from Nigeria.

"All we know is we want the UN to help people out of this place because this place is dangerous," he said.

Clothes, flip-flops, bags and mattresses were littered on the floor next to what remained of limbs of the dead. Blood stains coated some walls.

"Our teams had visited the centre just yesterday and saw 126 people in the cell that was hit," medical charity Doctors Without Borders said in a statement on Wednesday.

"Those that survived are in absolute fear for their lives."

'Horrific crime'

Haftar's air force mainly comprises dated MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighter jets and has reportedly been helped in the refurbishment of planes by Egypt and Russia.

The air force has been further reinforced by planes from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the former which reportedly provided MiG-21MF fighter jets from its own air force. 

The UAE is said to have bought four Mi-35P gunships from Belarus in April 2015 and delivered them to Haftar's forces. 

Egypt has also provided spare parts and guidance in servicing the planes.

The African Union (AU) condemned the attack and demanded those responsible for the "horrific crime" be held to account.

In a statement, the chairperson of the AU Commission 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.

"The chairperson reiterates his call for an immediate ceasefire, and for all parties to ensure the protection and safety of all civilians, especially the migrants trapped in detention centres," the AU statement added, calling on the international community to "redouble efforts" to bring the warring parties to the negotiation table.

The Tripoli-based government blamed the attack on the 'war criminal Khalifa Haftar' (AFP)
The Tripoli-based government blamed the attack on the 'war criminal Khalifa Haftar' (AFP)

A senior International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) official said that the organisation was providing medical kits and body bags to Tajura field hospital, where the wounded are being treated.

"Migrants are already vulnerable to sickness, arrest, exploitation and daily violence. To see so many killed in such a massive attack is heartbreaking," said Patrick Youssef, the ICRC's Deputy Regional Director for Africa.

Amnesty International called for the air strike to be investigated by the International Criminal Court.

"This deadly attack which struck a detention centre 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," said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty's Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director.

"The International Criminal Court should immediately investigate the possibility that this was a direct attack on civilians.”

The deaths are the highest publicly reported toll from an air strike or shelling since eastern forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar three months ago launched an offensive with ground troops and aircraft to take the capital held by the internationally recognised government.

Published photos showed African migrants undergoing surgery in a hospital after the strike, Reuters reported.

Others lay on beds, some covered in dust or with limbs bandaged.

Inhuman conditions

Libya is a main departure point for people from Africa fleeing poverty and war and trying to reach the European Union, which provides funds to the Libyan Coast Guard as part of its efforts to reduce the numbers crossing the Mediterranean.

Thousands of people are held in government-run detention centres in western Libya in what human rights groups and the United Nations say are often inhuman conditions.

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Tajura, east of Tripoli's centre, is home to several military camps of forces allied to Libya's internationally recognised government, which have been targeted by air strikes for weeks.

Haftar's air and ground campaign has failed to take Tripoli in three months of fighting, and last week the LNA lost its main forward base in Gharyan, which was taken back by Tripoli forces last week.

Both sides enjoy military support from regional powers. The LNA for years has been supplied by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, while Turkey recently shipped arms to Tripoli to stop Haftar's assault, diplomats say.

The fighting has scuppered UN plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in the east and west.

The conflict is part of the chaos in the oil-and-gas-producing nation since the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

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