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UAE involved in drone strike that killed 26 Libyan cadets: Report

BBC investigation finds missile responsible for January attack that left dozens dead was carried out by UAE-controlled drone
The UAE had purchased 15 Wing Loong drones and 350 Blue Arrow 7 missiles in 2017.
UAE purchased 15 Wing Loong drones and 350 Blue Arrow 7 missiles in 2017 (AFP/File photo)

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was behind a drone strike earlier this year that killed 26 unarmed cadets at a military academy in Tripoli, Libya, an investigation by the BBC has found.

According to Friday's report, the 4 January attack on a military academy in the Libyan capital was carried out by a Chinese Blue Arrow 7 missile fired by a Wing Loong II drone.

The BBC said in its report that shrapnel from the missile found at the scene of the attack matched the components of a Blue Arrow 7 missile.

According to the BBC, the missile could have only been fired by a Chinese-made Wing Loong II drone, which is only used by China, Kazakhstan and the UAE.

Just three weeks before the strike, the UN also concluded that the Blue Arrow 7 "is ballistically paired to be delivered by the Wing Loong II... and by no other aviation asset identified in Libya to date".

At the time of the attack, the BBC said the drone was being operated out of the al-Khadim air base, 105km (65 miles) east of Benghazi, which is in territory controlled by eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar's forces.

The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) said at the time that the drone in question was a Chinese-made Wing Loong II.

Haftar's forces had denied responsibility for the attack, saying it could have been caused by local shelling, while the UAE has repeatedly denied military involvement in the country.

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But an arms registry obtained by the BBC showed that in 2017 the UAE had purchased 15 Wing Loong drones and 350 Blue Arrow 7 missiles.

Shortly after the incident, the Wing Loong II drones appeared to have been moved over the border into Egypt, to an air base near Siwa in the western Egyptian desert, the report said.

Another Egyptian military base, Sidi Barrani, had also been used to transfer fighter jets "painted in colours that are not used by the Egyptian air force, but which exactly match the jets flown by the UAE", the report said, citing satellite imagery.

The French-made aircraft is the same model that the UN accused of carrying out an air strike in 2019 on a migrant centre near Tripoli that resulted in 53 deaths.

Despite a UN arms embargo against Libya, foreign actors have repeatedly been accused of transferring arms to forces loyal to Haftar.

In February, the UN described Libya as the "world's largest theatre for drone attacks".

"Everyone has something flying in the Libyan sky, it seems," Yacoub el-Hillo, UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya, said in a video briefing at the time.

Libya has been wracked by violence since 2011 when a Nato-backed uprising overthrew longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, multiple foreign powers have become involved in the country.

Following disputed elections in 2014, the country has been divided between competing administrations, with the UN-recognised GNA trying to fend off an offensive by forces loyal to Haftar. 

Haftar's offensive on Tripoli spectacularly collapsed in June when forces from the GNA, coupled with Turkish support, won a string of victories, driving Haftar's forces from the outskirts of the capital and other western towns.

Last week, the country's rival governments announced in separate statements that they would cease all hostilities and organise nationwide elections soon, an understanding swiftly welcomed by the United Nations.