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Egypt fighter jets target Islamic State in Libya

A statement released by the Egyptian military confirmed that its military planes targeted IS before returning safely to their bases
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, surrounded by top military generals, addresses journalists (AFP)

Egyptian fighter jets have launched dawn raids against Islamic State (IS) group targets in Libya on Monday, according to a statement by a spokesperson of the Armed Forces General Command.

The statement, which was relayed on Monday morning to the Egyptian public via state radio, said that the fighter jets returned safely back to their bases after targeting IS training camps and weaponries. The strikes were to “avenge the bloodshed and to seek retribution from the killers” of IS militants who allegedly beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts, revealed in a video from the group released on Sunday.

“Let those far and near know that Egyptians have a shield that protects them,” the statement said.

A Libyan air force commander allied to the Tobruk government said at least 40 or 50 people were killed in Monday’s strikes, which targeted the eastern town of Derna, a long-time hub of militant activity.

"There are casualties among the individuals, ammunition and the communication centres belonging to them (IS)," Saqer al-Joroushi said on Egyptian state television. "The number of deaths are not less than 40 or 50 for sure," he said.

Reporters on Twitter shared photos and video they said showed the aftermath of bombings in Derna.

21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were kidnapped in two separate incidents in December and January in the Libyan city of Sirte. A video released by IS shows the victims, all wearing orange jumpsuits, kneeling apparently along the coast of Tripoli, before masked men proceeded to behead them.

Relatives of the Egyptian captives recognised them in the images released by IS beforehand.

In the aftermath of the mass beheadings, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi on Sunday declared that his country has the right to respond to the execution.

“Egypt reserves for itself the right to respond at the appropriate time to avenge the killing of its nationals,” he said in a televised statement.

Sisi added that he had requested his foreign minister to head to the United Nations Security Council in New York to make urgent contacts. Under Sisi’s orders, Egypt’s National Defence Council is to be in continual session in order to consider appropriate measures.

Mohammad Samir, the military spokesperson, said in a statement published on his Facebook page that Egypt is seeking revenge.

“We stress that avenging Egyptians and seeking retribution from murderers and criminals is a duty we must fulfil,” he said.

Fears also grew for the safety of another group of 21 Egyptians, fishermen who were reportedly captured by an armed militia over the weekend.

However, Sky News Arabia reported on Monday afternoon that the men were not being held by IS, and would be released within the next two days.

According to the site's sources, the fishermen were being held by Libya's Bureau for Illegal Migration.

The Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC), one of Libya’s rival parliaments, denounced the Egyptian air strikes as “an attack on Libyan sovereignty” and “expressed condolences to the families of airstrikes’ victims”.

The reconvened parliament, which opposes the internationally recognised House of Representatives (HoR) based in eastern Libya, also condemned the killing of the Egyptian Copts.

“The GNC strongly condemns this terrorist act and extends condolences to the Egyptian people,” a statement said. “Such acts have nothing to do with Islam.”

The body “confirmed that the war on terror should be carried out under the legitimacy of the Libyan state, adding that the GNC had formed a military force and a joint security room to secure Sirte and hit with an iron fist those who undermine security and stability inside it".

Libya Dawn, an armed militia group allied to the GNC, called on Libyans to protest against what they called Egypt's "violation of [Libya's] sovereignty".

The group also called on Egyptians remaining in Libya, thought to number up to 1.5 million, to leave the country to avoid "venegeful actions" following the airstrikes in Derna.

Meanwhile Libya’s army, backed by the Tobruk-based HoR, condemned the executions and confirmed that it had started shelling IS targets in Sirte.

“We condemn the crime of the Islamic State and deliver our condolences to the Egyptian people and leadership,” Ahmed al-Mesmari, the spokesman for the army’s chief of staff said.

The bombing campaign in Libya is the first official military action taken by Egypt, outside its own borders, since the first Gulf War of 1990-91, according to analysts.

Security Council condemns mass beheading

The UN Security Council Issued a statement on Monday afternoon condemning what it called the "heinous and cowardly" apparent beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts.

The body condemned "the persecution of individuals and entire communities on the basis of their religion or belief" after the crime, which was documented in a video in which the victims were described as "People of the Cross".

In the statement, the Security Council "urged all co-operate actively with Libya, Egypt and all other relevant authorities" to help bring the perpetrators, stressing its commitment to stamping out the "intolerance, violence and hatred" that IS espouses.

The Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, said on Monday that Rome would not support broad-based military intervention in Libya without permission from the Security Council.

"Wisdom, prudence and a sense of the situation are required," Renzi told Italian television on Monday.

"If it wants to, the international community has the means to intervene. The proposal is to await the UN Security Council".

Italy's Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, said on Friday that Italy is "ready to fight".

Questions about the scope of Egypt's bombing campaign

Libya has remained a source of concern for neighbouring Egypt since the oil-rich North African country descended into civil war following the 2011 ousting and death of strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Egypt’s foreign ministry previously warned its citizens not to travel to Libya, as they represented prime targets for attacks.

Egypt's Minister of Civil Aviation is exploring a plan that would see the remaining Egyptian nationals in Egypt evacuated via Tunisia, which shares its eastern border with Libya.

Libya is in the midst of a fierce civil conflict that has seen rival cities, tribes and parliaments pitted against each other for control of vast natural resources. In the east there is the HoR, elected in June last year and backed by military man Khalifa Haftar, while in the capital the Misratan Led Alliance of Libya Dawn reconvened the defunct General National Congress GNC to form a "national salvation" government in August.

Analysts said while the focus for many countries in Libya is the fight against IS, the two issues are not independent of each other and “you can’t fight IS in Libya without at least stabilising the country”.

The European Council on Foreign Relations’ Mattia Toaldo said the “heinous” IS executions would likely prompt a similar response from other countries as seen from Egypt.

“The big question now is if the strikes are a one-off or the signal of a wider intervention by Egypt in Libya,” said Mattia Toaldo, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Egypt were not sitting and waiting until the Copts were killed. There is a long-standing history of Egyptian intervention – at least over the past year - in the country.”

Toaldo explained that for President Sisi, his image as a protector of Christians, who make up an estimated 15 percent of the Egyptian population, has been key to his political career and will be useful in selling his bombing campaign to the West.

“An important part of Sisi’s political strategy is to project himself as the protector of the Coptic minority,” he said. “Since the beginning of his political career Sisi has acted as the protector of the Coptic minority, which was the subject of several terrorist attacks since the time of the Egyptian revolution. Sisi was backed by Coptic religious authorities and it is an important powerbase for him.”

“It is important for Sisi to demonstrate – including to the West – that he defends Egypt’s multi-religious identity. If he had to frame his intervention in Libya – especially when trying to win friends in the West – it’s smart to say it is being done to protect Christians".

The UAE, a close ally of the HoR, which allegedly bombed Libya Dawn positions in Tripoli last year, expressed support for the strikes against IS and said it should herald greater support for the Tobruk-based parliament.

Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said the UAE "supports, with all its capabilities, Egypt's efforts in eradicating terrorism and violence directed at its nationals and affirms its position in standing alongside and its complete solidarity with it," Sheikh Abdullah told the official WAM news agency.

"The criminals must strongly and decisively receive the punishment they deserve without any hesitancy," he added.

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