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Libya airstrike kills at least 44 migrants, UN chief calls for investigation

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is calling for an independent investigation of the "outrageous" bombing of a detention centre for migrants near Libya's capital Tripoli, noting the United Nations had given its exact co-ordinates to parties in the conflict.

Migrants at detention centre recount fear, raise possibility death toll could climb

This image taken on a mobile phone on Wednesday shows the damage inside the detention centre in Tripoli's Tajoura neighborhood after an airstrike. The airstrike is likely to raise further concerns about the European Union's policy of partnering with Libyan militias to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. (The Associated Press)

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is calling for an independent investigation of the "outrageous" bombing of a detention centre for migrants near Libya's capital Tripoli, noting the UN had given its exact coordinates to parties in the ongoing conflict.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday the secretary general condemns "this horrendous incident in the strongest terms" and wants to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Dujarric said the attack killed at least 44 migrants and refugees, including women and children, and injured more than 130 people.

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

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

The United Nations Security Council was set to hold an emergency session on the situation in Libya on Wednesday afternoon.

Migrants are seen with their belongings at the yard of a detention centre in the Tajoura suburb of Tripoli in the aftermath of the airstrike. (Ismail Zitouny/Reuters)

In a statement, Libya's UN-backed government blamed the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, for the airstrike, and called for the UN support mission to establish a fact-finding committee to investigate.

It could also lead to greater Western pressure on Haftar, a Libyan general whose forces launched an offensive against the weak Tripoli-based government in April.

The French Foreign Ministry called for a quick return to the UN-backed talks. France also called for guaranteed access for humanitarian groups, which have often struggled to bring aid to the thousands of migrants trapped in detention centres.

Haftar's forces control much of the country's east and south, but were dealt a significant blow last week when militias allied with the Tripoli government reclaimed the strategic town of Gharyan, about 100 kilometres from the capital. Gharyan had been a key supply route for the LNA forces.

 

A spokesperson for Haftar'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 in Tripoli's Tajoura neighbourhood.

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.

Warnings that detention centres were at risk

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

In this May 21 photo provided by an African migrant, hundreds of migrants stage a protest in a detention centre in the town of Zintan, western Libya. Conditions at the migrant camps have been condemned by the United Nations and aid groups. (The Associated Press)

"Some people were wounded, and they died on the road, on their way running, and some people are still under the debris so we don't know what to say," said Othman Musa, a migrant from Nigeria.

"All we know is we want the UN to help people out of this place because this place is dangerous," he said.

Doctors Without Borders said the detention cell that was destroyed held 126 migrants. The aid group's Libya medical co-ordinator, Prince Alfani, said teams visited the centre just hours before the airstrike. He said survivors fear for their lives, and he called for the immediate evacuation of the detention centres.

The UN refugee agency in Libya condemned the airstrike on the detention centre and called for an immediate end to efforts to return migrants to Libya.

"This is the second time that the detention centre … has been hit during the current hostilities," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. "I urge all parties to the conflict to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law, and to take all possible measures to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, including schools, hospitals and detention facilities."

A spokesperson for UNHCR said the organization was sending medical teams to the site after the latest airstrike.

UN envoy Ghassan Salame said the airstrike could amount to a war crime because it "killed by surprise innocent people whose dire conditions forced them to be in that shelter."

Tripoli forces, Haftar army battle for control

The fighting for Tripoli has threatened to plunge Libya into another bout of violence on the scale of the 2011 conflict that ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and led to his death.

Haftar says he is determined to restore stability to the North African country. He is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia while his rivals, mainly Islamists, are supported by Turkey and Qatar.

His opponents, however, view him as an aspiring autocrat and fear a return to one-man rule.

The LNA launched an offensive against the weak Tripoli-based government in April. Haftar's forces control much of Libya's east and south, but suffered a significant blow last week when militias allied with the Tripoli government reclaimed the strategic town of Gharyan, about 100 kilometres from the capital. Gharyan had been a key LNA supply route.

Haftar's forces have targeted militia positions in Tajoura with airstrikes in recent weeks. The LNA said Monday it had begun an air campaign on rival forces in Tripoli after it lost control of Gharyan.

Haftar's forces boast MiG fighter jets supplied by neighbouring Egypt, as well as drones, attack helicopters and mine-resistant vehicles. It was not immediately clear what munitions were used in the airstrike early Wednesday.

Fathi Bashagha, the interior minister in the Tripoli-based government, claimed foreign countries allied with Haftar were behind the attack. He told The Associated Press that Haftar's foreign backers "went mad" after his forces lost Gharyan. He did not name any countries or provide evidence to support his claim. He also denied any weapons were being stored at the detention facility.

Wounded migrants lie on hospital beds at Tripoli Central Hospital in Libya on Wednesday. (Ismail Zitouny/Reuters)

Libya became a major crossing point for migrants to Europe after Gadhafi's overthrow, when the North African nation was thrown into chaos, armed militias proliferated and central authority fell apart.

At least 6,000 migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and other nations are locked in dozens of detention facilities in Libya run by militias accused of torture and other abuses. Most of the migrants were apprehended by Libyan coast guards, who have been funded and trained by the European Union.

The detention centres have limited food and other supplies for the migrants, who often end up there after arduous journeys at the mercy of abusive traffickers who hold them for ransom money from families back home.

With files from Reuters

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