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Pentagon says ‘nothing to indicate' US Libya strike killed Serbs

Pentagon spokesman says analysis shows no evidence Serbian diplomats were killed in a US strike on Libya over the weekend
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic addresses a press conference in Belgrade on 20 February 2016 (AFP)

The Pentagon on Wednesday disputed claims that two kidnapped Serbian diplomats were killed in a US air strike on an Islamic State (IS) compound in Libya.

US warplanes and drones last week targeted an IS training camp near the Libyan coastal city of Sabratha, killing dozens of people including a fighter who allegedly helped plot two deadly attacks in neighbouring Tunisia.

However, Belgrade said the strike's victims also included two officials from Serbia's embassy in Libya, Sladjana Stankovic and Jovica Stepic, who had been taken hostage in the area in November.

Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said an extensive analysis of surveillance of the IS compound and a review of photos posted online of the two Serbians' bodies yielded no evidence the man and woman were killed in the strike.

"As we've gone back looked at the photos of the Serbian citizens who died and gotten further information about the strike itself, the information we had leading up to it, (and) the assessment of the very extensive damage, it doesn't match with what is in the photos," Davis said. 

"These photos didn't any have any sense of place to them, that they were clearly taken at the site of the bombing ... (there's) nothing to indicate that their deaths are the result of the bombing."

Davis suggested the bodies would have been in far worse condition had they been killed in the massive air strike.

"It was not consistent with what we would expect human remains to look like following a strike of that magnitude," he said.

On Saturday, a day after the strike, Serbia blamed the US for killing the two hostages, and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic later said the pair would have been released, had they not been killed.

“I think we would have been able to pull out the abducted personnel if they weren’t killed in the bombing by the Allies,” Vucic told reporters.

The United States quickly offered its condolences but also expressed immediate doubts of the claims.

US officials said the raid likely killed Noureddine Chouchane, who along with other fighters had been planning attacks against American and other Western interests. 

Foreign policy analyst Bosko Jaksic told Middle East Eye on Saturday that the incident was unlikely to cause any lasting issues between the two countries.

I don’t think that this case will cause a greater diplomatic scandal between the two countries, and it is more likely that everything will end with a diplomatic note,” said Jaksic.

Libya spiralled into chaos after longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi was ousted and killed in October 2011, with two governments vying for power and armed groups battling to control vast energy resources.

Belgrade maintains an embassy in Tripoli, and Serbian citizens - mostly doctors, other medical staff and construction workers - have been working in Libya for decades due to close bilateral relations during the Gaddafi regime.