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Airstrike Kills Dozens of Migrants at Detention Center in Libya

An airstrike pulverized a migrant detention center in Libya early Wednesday, killing at least 44 people and wounding another 130 in one of the deadliest assaults on civilians since Libya plunged into chaos in 2011.

Libyan government officials and the United Nations condemned the attack on a hangar filled with African migrants near the capital, Tripoli, as a potential war crime and called for an international investigation. The United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, called it "outrageous" and said all parties to Libya's conflict had been given the center's location.

Immediate suspicions for the atrocity fell on Gen. Khalifa Hifter, the aspiring strongman whose Libyan National Army has been waging a major campaign to seize control of Tripoli since April, with the backing of major regional powers.

Col. Khalid al-Mahjoub, a spokesman for the group, denied responsibility, though he admitted it had targeted a nearby ammunition depot in recent weeks. "This time, we didn't do it," he said by telephone from the eastern city of Benghazi.

The bombing also stood as an indictment, rights groups said, of increasingly hard-line European policies on migration that seek to slow the tide of African migrants crossing the Mediterranean, regardless of the human cost. In recent years, the European Union and individual European countries have partnered with forces in Africa that have dubious human rights records in an effort to dissuade migrants from traveling, or to forcibly turn them around.

The bloc deepened its relationship with Sudan, for instance, although many of its leaders stand accused of war crimes. Italy is accused of bribing Libyan militiamen who have profited from smuggling across the Mediterranean, and of wielding the law to stop humanitarian groups from helping migrants in distress.

On Saturday, the Italian police arrested the German captain of a humanitarian ship carrying 40 rescued migrants after it docked at an Italian port, bringing a two-week standoff with the populist government in Rome into the Italian courts. A judge later ordered the captain released.

The migrant center in Tajoura, 10 miles east of Tripoli, that was hit early Wednesday morning was part of a network of 34 facilities that house at least 5,000 people across northwestern Libya, a system that has become a kind of catch-net for Europe's ever-harsher migration policies.

Having traveled across deserts or war zones, migrants are often turned back in the Mediterranean by the Libyan Coast Guard as they try to cross to Europe in overcrowded ships. The poorly trained Coast Guard, often likened to a boat-riding militia, says it pushed back 18,000 people last year. The United Nations says the figure is likely three times higher.

Back on dry land, the European Union says it has lavished funds on projects to help migrants and send them back home, spending $381 million since 2014. But many end up in the detention centers, run by militias and overseen by Libya's weak United Nations-backed government, where conditions can be squalid, dangerous and inhumane. At some centers, migrants say they have been tortured or treated as slaves.

Others are held for ransom or sold back to smugglers. Many live perilously close to the fighting. Since the battle for Tripoli erupted in April, about 3,800 of the 5,000 detainees have become trapped near the front line, according to the United Nations.

In interviews, officials at Tajoura said they have not been able to provide a regular supply of food to about 600 detainees since the Libyan government failed to renew a catering contract on April 1. Migrants have relied on handouts from the medical charity Doctors Without Borders and local businessmen, they said, and many frequently get just one meal a day.

In May, the United Nations' refugee agency warned that the detainees faced "unacceptable risks" after an airstrike hit a nearby target, wounding two refugees. But calls for an immediate evacuation of the center were ignored.

"Today we see the tragic consequences we feared when we made that statement," Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the United Nations agency, said in Geneva on Wednesday.

Ali al-Lutii, the commander of the Dhaman brigade that controls the center, said in an interview that the airstrike struck a hangar with 135 detainees from numerous African countries. A second airstrike hit a nearby military workshop, he said. On Wednesday morning, the remains of the hangar were a heap of twisted metal, rubble, scattered clothes and dirty mattresses. Pieces of flesh and the limbs of the dead were scattered around the site. Bloodstains coated the wall.

Satellite images showed that the bombing had obliterated an entire section of the center. By late morning, the remaining migrants had been evacuated to other centers. In a statement, Doctors Without Borders, which visited the center the day before, said, "Those that survived are in absolute fear for their lives."

The atrocity provoked global outrage and a range of proposals that reflected the different priorities of international actors in Libya.

Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to increase the resettlement of asylum seekers out of Libya, including directly to European countries.

The European Union's diplomatic chief, Federica Mogherini, called for a United Nations-led investigation into the "horrific attack." "Those responsible should be held to account," she said in a joint statement with other European Union officials.

The State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the attack underscored the urgent need for all sides to stop fighting for Tripoli "and return to the political process, which is the only viable path to lasting peace and stability in Libya."

Libya's belligerents exchanged accusations before resuming the fight. General Hifter's spokesman accused the Dhaman brigade of using migrants as human shields. Mr. al-Lutii rejected those accusations. Hours later, General Hifter's forces hit Tripoli's only functioning airport with an airstrike, saying that it was targeting a control room for drones.

But the larger mystery over which force carried out the attack remains unresolved. Judging from the damage, analysts said there was little doubt that warplanes, and not drones, carried out the attack. But it was unclear whether the planes belonged to General Hifter or a foreign state, such as the United Arab Emirates.

Since General Hifter launched his campaign to take Tripoli he has received weapons and support from the United Arab Emirates, a longtime ally that shares his preference for strongman rule in the Middle East. Turkey has taken the other side in the fight.

The Emiratis and Turks have lavished weapons on the opposing forces in recent months, supplying combat drones and armored vehicles in the hope of backing the winning side.

The possibility of powerful American weapons being used in the conflict arose last week, when government forces found four American-made anti-tank missiles at one of General Hifter's bases. Markings on the missile cases indicated that they had been sold in 2008 to the United Arab Emirates.

After General Hifter's forces were ousted from that base last week, he sought to rally his forces by blaming Turkey and then by escalating the fight.

On Monday, a spokesman for his forces warned of impending airstrikes around Tripoli. A day later, the center in Tajoura was hit.

Rights groups warned that the injection of more sophisticated weapons has raised the stakes in the conflict, and increased the likelihood of a protracted fight where civilians - and refugees - are in the firing line.

"Today's deadly airstrike is a tragic but foreseeable consequence of fighting among heavily armed factions with scant regard for civilian lives, whether Libyan or foreign," said Eric Goldstein, the deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"The government in Tripoli's failure to release or evacuate the thousands of detained migrants in the area has left them like sitting ducks during the ongoing fighting," he said.

[Source: By Declan Walsh, The New York Times, 03Jul19]

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