Airstrike hits migrant detention centre in Libya, 40 killed

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — An airstrike hit a detention centre for migrants in the Libyan capital early yesterday, killing at least 40 people and wounding dozens, officials in the country’s United Nations (UN)-supported government said.

The airstrike raises further concerns about the European Union’s  (EU) policy of partnering with Libyan militias to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, which often leaves them at the mercy of brutal traffickers or stranded in squalid detention centres  near the front lines.

It could also lead to greater Western pressure on Khalifa Hifter, a Libyan general whose forces launched an offensive on Tripoli in April. The Tripoli-based government blamed his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) for the airstrike and called for the UN support mission in Libya to establish a fact-finding committee to investigate.

A spokesman for Hifter’s forces did not immediately answer phone calls and messages seeking comment. Local media reported the LNA had launched airstrikes against a militia camp near the detention centre.

The airstrike targetting the detention centre in Tripoli’s Tajoura neighbourhood also wounded 35 migrants, according to the Interior Ministry in Tripoli. Health Ministry spokesman Malek Merset posted photos of migrants being taken in ambulances to hospitals. He had earlier said that 80 were wounded.

Footage circulating online and said to be from inside the migrant detention centre showed blood and body parts mixed with rubble and migrants’ belongings.

Libyan Red Crescent workers recover migrants’ bodies after an airstrike at a detention centre in Tajoura, east of Tripoli. – AP

The airstrike hit a workshop housing weapons and vehicles and an adjacent hangar where around 150 migrants were being held, mostly Sudanese and Moroccans, according to two migrants who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

The migrants said three or four survived unharmed and about 20 were wounded. They said the remainder were killed, indicating the final death toll could be much higher.

The UN refugee agency in Libya condemned the airstrike on the detention centre, which houses a total of 616 migrants and refugees, and called for an immediate end to efforts to return migrants to Libya.

UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley noted that the agency had warned less than two months ago that anyone inside the Tajoura detention centre was at risk of being caught in the fighting around Tripoli. Then, an airstrike that hit nearby wounded two migrants. Yaxley said UNHCR is sending medical teams to the site after the latest airstrike.

The head of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, also condemned the strike. He called for an independent investigation and said those responsible for the “horrific crime” should be held to account.