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IS parades severed heads in front of Libyan schoolchildren

Libyans in desert town of Harawa, abandoned by Libya Dawn government, plead for help in resisting advance of IS militants
A photo from propaganda media outlet Welayat Tarablos allegedly shows members of the Islamic State group parading in Sirte this February (AFP PHOTO/HO/WELAYAT TARABLOS)

Islamic State (IS) militants have paraded the severed heads of two prisoners in front of women and children in the Libyan town of Nufaliya, which is again under the control of IS.

A woman from the town told Middle East Eye that IS members carried the disembodied heads through the town on Thursday afternoon to the horror of local people. In tears, she said the parade took place when children were going home from school with their mothers, leaving many terrified and traumatised by the sight, which she described as “completely horrific".

According to locals, the executed victims were captured during an early-morning assault by IS militants on the sprawling desert town of Harawa, 50 kilometres south-west of Nufaliya on the central Libyan coast. IS regained control over the town after the Libya Dawn government in Tripoli withdrew its forces - which were battling to control the country’s largest oil port - almost two months ago.

Since late March, IS has been strengthening its presence around Nufaliya unchallenged by Libya’s rival governments, currently caught up with fighting two other IS strongholds - in Sirte and Derna - as well as each other, on multiple front lines across the country.

IS launched the surprise attack on Harawa on Thursday morning, although local residents quickly gathered and put up a fierce resistance, a senior member of the community, Mohamed*, told MEE. Heavy fighting left one IS militant dead and another severely wounded. Three residents from Harawa were injured, one critically, and two young men captured and taken back to Nufaliya, he said.

Within hours, the two men were beheaded, according to Nufaliya residents.

Mohamed described the beheadings as acts of victory and revenge against the people of Harawa, which were intended to send a clear warning to residents in other local towns not to resist IS.

Powerless to do anything

In Nufaliya, an initial IS presence of around 30 people has now grown to more than 100, Ali, a local resident, told MEE.

Until Thursday, the group's rule had been intimidating, but non-violent. He said that the beheadings had seen a secret fear become a reality - that Nufaliya could become like the eastern Libyan town of Derna, which is under full control of IS, and where severe punishments and public executions have become part of daily life.

Ali said that, although they controlled operations from some government buildings and a mosque in the old town, IS was more active in outlying desert areas. 

“They have a big camp about 50 kilometres south-west of Nufaliya where they are using heavy machinery to make sand barriers,” he said, adding that farmers looking for camels in the desert had reported that the camp was well-stocked with supplies and equipment.

“It is strange because this is a remote place and we don’t understand how they got all those machines there. They must have a lot of support but we don’t know from who or where," he said.

On the main roads around Nufaliya, including on Libya’s coastal highway, there are IS checkpoints, which fly the group's black flag and are manned by both Libyans and foreigners, Ali said. Although wearing masks, they are identifiable by their accents when they stop traffic, instructing men to fully cover their women and dispensing advice about the importance of growing a beard.

There have also been occasional arrests of senior members of local communities, including one Salafi imam, who was held for a day and accused of preaching against Libya’s 2011 revolution.

Local people were intimidated by the checkpoints and extremely concerned about the growing presence of IS, he said, but were powerless to do anything.

“We know they are looking to take over other towns because they have made visits, looking carefully at old buildings, but we can do nothing to stop these people.”

Representatives from Harawa and other local towns had approached both Libya’s parliaments for help but, already overstretched on other front lines, no action had been taken, Ali said. He criticised the international community for not doing anything to help.

“We see on the television that the EU want to stop migrants going to Italy by attacking boats but what about Libyan people suffering under IS?” he said. “The EU only cares about Europe, they don’t care about the Libyan people.”

Residents from the town of Harawa have been the only ones to put up any resistance so far and Mohamed said further clashes with IS were expected. After the killing of the two young men, the town has called for support from members of their tribe from the south and Brigade 166 from Misrata which has been fighting IS in Sirte since February.

*All names have been changed to protect identities