Islamist militants in Libya have denied the death of wanted Al-Qaeda linked jihadi Mokhtar Belmokhtar, publishing a list of seven casualties killed during recent US airstrikes in an eastern town.
Before dawn on Sunday American warplanes bombed a farm south of Ajdabiya, where representatives of several jihadi organizations were allegedly meeting. US officials later confirmed the strike had targeted Belmokhtar, a veteran jihadist from Algeria believed to be the mastermind of the 2013 attack at Algerian gas plant In Amenas, during which over 38 hostages were killed.
Libya’s internationally-recognized government, which said the attack had been coordinated with their forces, declared Belmokhtar dead but provided no proof. Two Libyan jihadi groups involved in the meeting have since denied their claim.
In a statement published on Sunday, Ajdabiya Revolutionaries’ Shura Council (ARSC), a jihadi umbrella group formed in March that is believed to have hosted the meeting, provided names of seven individuals killed in the airstrike: Attia Saleh Buhadida al-Maghribi, Ahmed Khattab al-Fakhri, Naji Faraj Buhadida al-Maghribi, Saeed Bukhazim al-Nofli al-Maghribi, Faraj Douma al-Sadidi al-Zway, Ali Badi and Hamza Msheeti. The head of the group, al-Saadi Bukhazim al-Nofli, apparently survived, but his nephew was among the seven killed.
The list of casualties was confirmed in another statement on Monday by Ansar al-Sharia, a better-known Libyan jihadi group that has been present in eastern Libya for over three years and that is believed to have been involved in the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi in 2012. In a clear reference to claims of Belmokhtar’s death, Ansar al-Sharia added that “no (jihadi) figures were killed except those mentioned in the statement”.
ARSC condemned the “treacherous operation set up by the evil American secret services against our sheikhs and youth and revolutionaries with the complicity of the invalid parliament and its corrupted government”, referring to the internationally recognized Libyan authorities. It also blamed eastern Libyan tribes for supporting the army’s military campaign against Islamic extremists and called upon the residents of Ajdabiya to “take a clear stance” regarding the airstrike.
Finally, the group threatened with “tough retaliation” against the Libyan authorities that approved of the US attack, declaring them a “legitimate target for us so to teach them that the blood of our youth is not cheap”.
Ansar al-Sharia sent a similar message but described the airstrike as “spiteful American crusader attack on Islam and our people”. The group’s statement moreover mentioned jihadis with ties to al-Qaeda who were killed in the past as “heroes who should be emulated”.
It is not clear why Ansar al-Sharia, which local sources say has almost entirely merged into ARSC and other eastern Libyan jihadi umbrella groups, seconded the ARSC’s statement with their own. Neither statement revealed the nature or aim of the jihadi meeting in Ajdabiya.