An American airstrike against an Islamic State group “camp” in Sabratha killed two Serbian hostages, Belgrade officials have said, as the Libyan government warned it was not consulted ahead of the deadly raid.
On Friday two F-15 American fighter-bombers struck a farmhouse in the secluded area of Telil, near Sabratha, some 70km west of Tripoli.
The target was Tunisian IS militant Noureddine Chouchane who is wanted by the Tunisian authorities for masterminding two terror attacks in Tunisia last year in which dozens of foreign tourists were killed.
In the dawn raid 49 people died and four were injured. All were Tunisian IS militants bar two foreigners later identified as Serbian embassy workers who were kidnapped from Sabratha last year.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said there was no doubt that Sladjana Stankovic, a communications officer, and Jovica Stepic, a driver, were those killed in the American bombing. They were abducted in November in the city while in a convoy traveling to Tunisia. At the time Belgrade’s Ambassador to Tripoli, Oliver Potežic, was traveling with them but escaped unharmed with his wife and two children.
“They were killed by explosions, obviously we are talking about American bombs,” Vucic said, expressing “deepest condolences” to the families.
“This is the first big hostage crisis that our state has been faced with. Our people would have been released had they not been killed,” he added.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić said Serbia had known the exact location of the Serb hostages for a while and had been working to get them back. They had coordinated with Libyan troops to plan a possible operation to free them but the Americans unilaterly decided to bomb the area first.
“I believe we had been close to the solution for them to be freed. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the attack against [IS] in Libya, the two of them lost their lives,” Dačić said.
The Americans may not have known the hostages were there, he added.
“We will seek official explanation from both Libya and the United States about the available facts and the selection of targets,” he said. “No one had informed us that the attack will take place.”
The Pentagon for its part said it had “no information” indicating that its air strike had killed the two Serbs and that the circumstances of their deaths “remained unclear”.
“Our forces watched this training camp for weeks leading up to the operation, and at the time of the strike there were no indications of any civilians present,” Pentagon Spokesperson Peter Cook said. The US extended its condolences to Serbia and the families of the dead.
Serbian intelligence services said criminal gangs linked to IS staged the kidnapping and asked for an impossibly huge ransom for their release. “It wasn’t in the interests of the people who held them to kill them, because there were no other demands but financial,” Minister Dačić concluded.
The Libyan government – that is anchored in Tobruk – meanwhile denounced the air raid saying the Americans had failed to coordinate the strike, calling it a “blatant violation of Libya’s sovereignty and international conventions”. They blamed the West’s inaction for IS’s rapid expansion across the country.
“Over the past two years the Libyan government has warned the international community of the spread of [IS] and allied groups, which has become a real threat not only to Libya but also to regional and international security. The government has been asking the international community for full support, but these requests have fallen on deaf ears,” the statement read.
“And while the authorities appreciate any support, it also affirms that any political or military intervention in Libyan affairs must be done through the legal channels represented by the [parliament] and its affiliated government. As a consequence the government condemns the airstrikes,” it concluded.
Libya’s rival government, the controls Tripoli, also criticized the US bombing campaign saying they had not been consulted either.
The Sabratha Municipal Council said it was also not informed of the strikes beforehand. Frustrated by the encroaching presence of IS in their area, and fearful of further unilateral western airstrikes, the SMC demanded both the Libyan and Tunisian authorities “assume their responsibilities to deter and combat these organizations that want to destroy our country.”
“The SMC is surprised about the silence from the responsible Libyan authorities, both legislative and executive, about what the city has faced. We demand that they take a clear stance on this incident. The council is also surprised about the silence of the Tunisian government regarding the activities of its citizens and the absence of serious measures to stop the flow of terrorists across the border to Libya,” it wrote in a Saturday statement.
While it said its local authorities are monitoring all those implicated in bringing IS terrorist into the area, it called on the Libyan government to help “secure the city” .
Sabrathan mayor Hussain al-Dhuwadi – who in the past has tried to downplay IS’s presence in his town – denied the building targeted was a “training camp” but admitted IS had a foothold in the area.
He said the farmhouse was owned by a man called Abdelhakim al-Mashut who had rented it out to “foreigners”. Al-Mashut, who bought the property for just $19,000, is currently on the run he told.
Neighbors of the building said they did not notice any suspicious activities before the strike, believing the Tunisians – who first arrived three months ago – to be foreign migrant workers.
“We have spoken to two of the survivors . One of them told us that they didn’t know where they were at all and that since their arrival they had never left the building. Only two people would go in and out to get food ,” the mayor added.
The fighters had come from Tunisia to “plot attacks in Tunis” those who survived the assault, said from their hospital beds.
Some 5,000 IS militants are thought to be operating across Libya, as the group has exploited a two year civil war to gain territory. They currently command a 250km street of coastland from Sirte, as well as pockets around Sabratha and in the eastern districts of Benghazi and Derna.