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Serbian Hostages Killed in U.S. Airstrikes Against ISIS in Libya

Two Serbian hostages died in American airstrikes on an Islamic State training camp in western Libya on Friday, Serbian leaders said on Saturday in statements that criticized a military operation that had been presented as a clean strike against extremism.

The strikes by American F-15 jets against a compound in Sabratha, 50 miles west of Tripoli, the capital, killed at least 43 people, according to Libyan officials. The Pentagon said that it was likely that the dead included the principal target of the attacks, Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian militant who was accused of facilitating two major attacks on Western tourists in Tunisia last year.

But the deaths of the hostages, both Serbian Embassy employees, drew protests from Serbia and raised questions about the quality of the American intelligence that led to the strikes.

A Pentagon spokesman, Peter Cook, said that American forces had watched the site for weeks before the strikes and found "no indications of any civilians present." But, he said, the military offered its condolences to the bereaved families and undertook to "share whatever information we can with the Serbian government."

The airstrikes were also condemned by Libya's internationally recognized Parliament, based in the eastern city of Tobruk, which denounced them as "a clear and flagrant violation of sovereignty of the Libyan state."

At the site of the bombing on Saturday, amid rubble and twisted metal, a reporter found a billboard with the words "Islamic State Caliphate" and a handbook with instructions about how to assemble a weapon.

The building had been a modest farmhouse, set amid palm trees and not far from the Mediterranean Sea. Libyan officials said that up to 60 people had been staying there.

A man who lived nearby said the militants had started to use the house about three months ago. The group members were secretive, he said, and presented themselves as migrant laborers.

When the American warplanes, deployed from an air base in Britain, struck early on Friday, the man said, the blasts were so strong that he feared his own house would collapse.

The Sabratha municipal authority said it had recovered 43 bodies from the site as well as the remains of what it estimated to be six other bodies. That toll included the two hostages, whose remains were taken to Tripoli's only functioning airport to await repatriation to Serbia.

At a news conference in Belgrade, Serbia's capital, Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said the two embassy employees — identified as Sladjana Stankovic, a communications officer, and Jovica Stepic, a driver — had been taken hostage on Nov. 8 after an attack on their convoy in Sabratha as it drove toward Tunisia.

Serbia's ambassador to Libya, who was traveling in a separate vehicle with his wife and two sons, aged 8 and 14, escaped unharmed. The attack was one of the first overt signs of the Islamic State's presence in the town, which is about 260 miles west of Surt, the site of the Islamic State's main base in Libya.

Mr. Dacic said the Serbian authorities were still negotiating for the hostages' release when a barrage of American missiles slammed into the compound on Friday morning. "The kidnappers had a financial interest," he told reporters, Reuters said.

The kidnappers' demands for the release of the two hostages, a man and a woman, had been "impossible" to meet, he said. Nonetheless, the Serbian government was angry that it had not been informed of the raid in advance, and will send a protest note to Washington, he said.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, speaking at a separate briefing, said, "They were killed by explosions; obviously we are talking about American bombs."

The hostages' deaths were similar to the case of Warren Weinstein, an American aid contractor kidnapped by the Pakistani Taliban who died in a C.I.A. drone strike in Pakistan last year.

For the United States, the strikes — which hit the farmhouse filled with sleeping militants, mostly from Tunisia — were part of its continuing effort to stem the spread of the Islamic State.

The Sunni extremist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, now controls 150 miles of Libyan coastline around Surt and has up to 6,500 fighters, American officials say. The Sabratha compound was part of a network of more discreet bases in Libya that could be used to launch attacks in the region or in Europe.

American surveillance indicated that the militants had been at the camp for weeks, apparently training for an operation.

[Source: By Declan Walsh and Suliman Ali Zway, The New York Times, Cairo, 20Feb16]

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