TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Islamic State militants unleashed suicide bombings Friday in eastern Libya, killing at least 40 people in what the group said was retaliation for Egyptian airstrikes against the extremists’ aggressive new branch in North Africa.
The bombings in the town of Qubba, which is controlled by Libya’s internationally recognised government, solidified concerns the extremist group has spread beyond the battlefields of Iraq and Syria and established a foothold less than 500 miles from the southern tip of Italy.
The militants have taken over at least two Libyan coastal cities on the Mediterranean — Sirte and Darna, which is about 30 kilometres from Qubba. They released a video on Sunday that showed the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians who were abducted in Sirte, and Egypt responded Monday with airstrikes on Darna.
The Islamic State group has established its presence in Libya by exploiting the country’s breakdown since Dictator Moammar Gadhafi was ousted and killed in 2011. Hundreds of militias have taken power since then, and some of them have militant ideologies. A militia coalition known as Libya Dawn has taken over Tripoli, where conservatives set up their own parliament and government. Extremist militias controlled the second-largest city of Benghazi until late last year, when army troops began battling them for control. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for Friday’s suicide bombings in Qubba, but said there were only two attacks, while the government said there were three.
Government spokesman Mohammed Bazaza put the death toll at 40, with at least 70 injured, some seriously. The number of dead was expected to rise. Among the dead were six Egyptians working at a cafe next to the gas station.
Video broadcast from the scene showed dozens of cars wrecked and ablaze, with pools of blood on the asphalt, along with body parts, shoes and shattered glass. Bodies covered in sheets were lined up nearby. The government and parliament announced a week of mourning.
Libya is split between two rival parliaments and governments. The elected and internationally recognised parliament has been forced to relocate to the eastern city of Tobruk near the Egyptian border because Tripoli has been overrun by the Islamic and tribal militias. Meanwhile, an older pre-election parliament, supported by the militias, has remained in Tripoli and declared itself legitimate. As violence has escalated dramatically across the country since summer, hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been displaced and entire cities and towns have been left in ruins.