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UN investigators suspect foreign jet bombed Libyan migrant centre

Source with knowledge of confidential inquiry into July attack which left 53 dead says it was focused on the UAE
A panel working for the UN Security Council has spent months trying to establish who was behind the attack (Reuters)

A missile strike on a migrant detention centre in Libya that left 53 people dead in July was carried out by a fighter plane from a foreign country, according to a confidential UN investigation.

No country was named in the report which was presented to the UN Security Council on Wednesday, but a source with knowledge of the inquiry told the BBC that it was focused on the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The majority of those killed at the Tajoura migrant detention centre, east of the capital Tripoli, were believed to have been sub-Saharan Africans attempting to reach Europe from Libya.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) suggested that many of those held in the camp tried to flee during the raid, only to be attacked by their guards.

"There are reports that following the first impact, some refugees and migrants were fired upon by guards as they tried to escape," the OCHA said in a report.

The missile strike, which also injured 130, was described as a potential war crime by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

Months-long investigation

The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli said in July that the attack had been carried out by a fighter plane from the UAE. 

The Libyan National Army (LNA), which began an offensive in April under General Khalifa Haftar to overthrow the GNA in the capital, initially said it had bombed a legitimate target but later denied being involved.

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The UN Special Mission in Libya has said it shared the co-ordinates of migrant centres with both sides in the conflict to prevent them from being hit.

A panel working for the UN Security Council has spent months trying to establish who was behind the attack.

According to the BBC, the report cites evidence from a confidential source saying "an unknown number of Mirage 2000-9" fighter jets were operating from two airbases inside Libya at the time of the attack.

The UAE and Egypt, both of which have a large number of Mirage fighter jets, are seen as Haftar's key supporters in the conflict while he accuses Turkey and Qatar of supplying weapons to his rivals.

The UN report says the Mirage fighters jets were using two airbases at Jufra and al-Khadim.

In 2017, the UN said the UAE had built up the air base at al-Khadim and provided air support to Haftar's forces.

Dated air force

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 UAE, the former which reportedly provided MiG-21MF fighter jets from its own air force. 

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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.

A spokesman for the Egyptian army told the BBC it did not want to comment on a report before it had been published.

The confidential report concludes it is "highly probable" the air strike was carried out using precision-guided missiles by a fighter jet "operated by a [UN] member state acting in direct support of HAF [Haftar Armed Forces]," the BBC reported.

The report does not name the state as it says evidence is still being obtained.

EU blamed

Following the attack on the migrant centre, the president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said European Union policies had helped lead to the deaths.

Speaking to reporters in New York in July, Francesco Rocca said the EU had put more effort into arms and oil deals than in pushing for the release of people held in the centres.

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"I think it's very clear who's responsible for their deaths. It's very easy to blame only the Libyan authorities, which of course are treating without dignity human beings," Rocca said.

"But then this is also the result of EU policy for five or six years now, this lack of action or inaction, and only action for oil, for gas, for trade, and not to safeguard the dignity of human beings."

There has been an arms embargo on Libya since 2011. In August 2019, the UAE signed a commitment to stick to the embargo along with the UK, US, France and Italy.

France and Italy are big investors in Libya's oil fields, and Paris was embarrassed in the summer when some of its missiles were discovered at a Libyan base seized from Haftar's forces.

The French government has since said those weapons had been purchased from the US and were not intended for sale or purchase by any party in Libya.