New eyewitness testimonies gathered by Amnesty International indicate that the Egyptian Air Force failed to take the necessary precautions in carrying out an attack which killed seven civilians in a residential neighbourhood in the Libyan city of Derna on 16 February.
The incident is one in a string of horrific acts – some of which amount to war crimes – in recent weeks that show how civilians are increasingly bearing the brunt of reprisal attacks as violence in Libya escalates.
In the latest incident on 20 February, according to the Libyan authorities 42 people were killed, including civilians, in bombings targeting military and civilian targets in the eastern city of Qubbah. A group calling itself Barqa Province of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks in retaliation for the Egyptian airstrikes.
“Civilians in Libya are in mortal danger as retaliatory attacks by all sides spiral even further out of control in the aftermath of the horrific murder of the 21 Egyptian Copts,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International.
“Attacks which do not discriminate between civilians and fighters are war crimes. When perpetrated as part of a systematic and widespread attack against a civilian population, murder is a crime against humanity.”
The Egyptian military carried out airstrikes using F-16 jet fighters on the eastern port city in retaliation for the highly-publicized murder of 21 mostly Egyptian Christian Copts by a group calling itself the Tripoli Province of the Islamic State. The murder, which is a war crime, prompted the UN-recognized government of Libya and Egypt to seek the lifting of an embargo on the supply and transfer of arms to Libyan forces.
However, Amnesty International’s research indicates that the Egyptian military failed to take the necessary precautions to avoid or minimize incidental harm to civilians in its airstrikes on Derna on 16 February.
“Egypt has now joined the ranks of those placing civilians at risk in Libya. The killing of seven civilians, six of them in their own homes, must be investigated, as it appears to have been disproportionate,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“The Egyptian authorities must publicly disclose detailed information on all airstrikes carried out in Derna on 16 February, including targets, and measures taken to avoid incidental harm to civilians.”
“Even if the Egyptian military believed that fighters were present in the house or in the vicinity, they should have taken the necessary precaution to identify who else was in the house and in the neighbourhood to avoid or at least minimize civilian casualties.”
The evidence: Airstrikes on Derna
According to eyewitnesses, Egyptian fighter jets carried out airstrikes on several locations in and around Derna between 5:45am and 7:30am on 16 February. Most were on military targets, but eyewitnesses say two missiles were fired into a heavily populated residential area called Sheiha al-Gharbiya, close to the city’s university.
The military targets include the compound of the Derna Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, a military base located in the al-Jabal company and military camps located in the Dahr al-Ahmar and Ra’s Hilal areas. Of these, only the al-Jabal company is located near a civilian-populated area. Apartment buildings located near al-Jabal company sustained minor partial damage. Residents told Amnesty International that most of the windows in their houses were shattered and doors were blown-off as a result of the explosion.
The last strike however, which took place at around 7:15am, targeted a civilian area in Sheiha al-Gharbiya. One missile struck a four-storey house belonging to the al-Kharshoufi family, killing a mother and her three children aged between three and eight, and injuring their father and another child. A second missile hit a street in between civilian houses, causing three other deaths. Following this attack, Amnesty International interviewed eyewitnesses from the area and medical workers at a hospital that treated the wounded.
According to the director of Derna Hospital, 17 people sustained injuries from shrapnel, debris or burns as a result of the explosions. Four people’s injuries were serious and required surgery. All other patients were treated at the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. The director confirmed to Amnesty International that there were no fighters amongst those injured and dead brought to the hospital.
The full extent of the damage is still not known, but eyewitnesses told Amnesty International that about 10 houses were destroyed and a further 30 houses sustained shattered windows and other minor damage in the blast as a result of which some were rendered uninhabitable. Approximately 20 private cars were also damaged in the attack.
Amnesty International has found no evidence that any military target was located in the al-Kharshoufi family’s house, and the attack was carried out without any prior warning to civilians.
The organization could not determine whether a legitimate military target was located nearby. Three area residents who witnessed the attacks all said that they did not see any fighters or military activity in the immediate vicinity. Some Derna residents told Amnesty International that they had heard reports of fighters firing anti-aircraft guns from a pick-up truck on Sheiha al-Gharbiya’s main road, which had retreated to a side street to avoid retaliatory attacks. The Chief of Staff of the Libyan army denied any civilian casualties and said that 40-50 fighters had been killed in the attacks on 16 February. According to a statement by Saqr al-Jeroushi, the Chief of Staff of the Libyan Air Force, one of the airstrikes was directed at the house of the Al-Zini family, which had an anti-aircraft gun mounted on its roof. Saqr al-Jeroushi said that the airstrike was carried out by a Libyan aircraft, and confirmed not knowing if any civilians were in the house. All residents interviewed by Amnesty International confirmed seeing only Egyptian airplanes, which appeared to be F-16 fighter jets, and that no Libyan aircraft took part in the attack.
Eyewitnesses interviewed by Amnesty International denied seeing any anti-aircraft weapons mounted on rooftops in the area.
One Derna resident told Amnesty International that he received reports about the death of approximately seven fighters, but that they were not killed in the Sheiha al-Gharibya strike. He explained: “All those that were brought to the hospital were civilians. Armed groups never bring their dead to the hospital, they usually bury them right away. There was only one fighter amongst the injured, and he was discharged right away as his injuries were not serious”.
In a televised statement during a visit to the Air Force troops who carried out the Derna airstrikes, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi denied that any civilian objects had been targeted. He further stated on 23 February: “13 objectives were targeted. The objectives were studied with precision, the reconnaissance of the targets was carried out with precision. The gathering of data and information, including on those who were inside, and on the locations was done with precision. I am saying this so that no one thinks that we are carrying out hostile operations against civilians”. To sustain his claims, President al-Sisi also recalled an operation against terrorist suspects, which was cancelled due to the presence of women and children amongst them.
On the same day as the Egyptian airstrikes in Derna, Egypt’s government signed a 5 billion euro deal to buy 24 Rafale fighter jets from France. According to the French Defence Minister, the deal was meant to upgrade Egypt’s military hardware amid widening threats of terrorism.
One resident who witnessed the airstrikes in Sheiha al-Gharbiya on the morning of 16 February told Amnesty International:
“It was before dawn and I was awake. I heard the sound of airplanes and I immediately knew that they were Egyptian because of the news of the killing of the Copts. [Libyan General Khalifa] Haftar’s planes are old and do not fly at night. I heard them flying above the city. Then I heard the sound of explosions coming from the Dahar al-Ahmar mountain, located only two or three kilometres behind our neighbourhood. They were firing at each other. I then left to go to pray al-Fajr at the mosque. While praying, I could hear the sound of loud, violent explosions in the city. I could feel the mosque shake, and I then heard that they had hit the compound of al-Jabal company twice. I got back home; it was about 6:30. For 40 minutes things seemed to have quietened down, there was no sound of planes. People were saying that the Egyptian planes were hitting military positions in the Ra’as al-Hilal area, outside of the city. We thought that the strikes had stopped. I was home with my children, who got up because of the sound of explosions and were very scared. Then, suddenly, I heard the planes come back. They were flying above the university, which is located just in front of my house. I thought that they would be attacking the mountain area again. Then I saw a massive explosion.
All the windows in my house were shattered, two doors were blown off. I saw a lot of smoke, women were screaming. The planes had hit a house located only 60-70 metres from where I was standing. We tried to rush to help the injured, but the airplane continued to fly above us, and we got scared that there would be another strike. I think that about 15 houses were completely damaged because of the explosion, but many more were affected, just like my house. Around 30 cars were also damaged. Some were completely destroyed, others had their windows broken. It was a very powerful explosion. The F-16s dropped two missiles.”
Amnesty International spoke to a family member of Osama Younis Ishtewi, a 32-year-old man who was killed in the strike, who insisted that no fighters were present in the house:
“Osama was a teaching assistant at the High Institute of Comprehensive Trades in Derna. When he graduated, he got a scholarship to continue his studies in Turkey, but because of the crisis in Libya, the embassy stopped paying for his fees, and he had to come back home. He had returned only on 2 February. He had no relation to the fighting whatsoever. It was a raid. It happened around 7:00am. No one in Derna was sleeping because of the sound of airplanes. There were four or five of them. Osama was filming the planes from the rooftop of our house. Suddenly, there was a massive noise. A missile hit the area between our house and that of our neighbours. Osama was killed with shrapnel. When we found the body, we saw that his head was severed. The whole house collapsed. We are all civilians, there were children and women in the house. I have three children, a girl aged five and a boy aged three. My youngest one is only 20 days old. There was no one firing from the rooftops, it is a lie.”
The son of Atiya Mohamed Bou Shayab al-Sha’ri, a school inspector aged approximately 55, told Amnesty International that his father was killed by shrapnel as he was standing outside his house. He described the attack:
“It happened at 7:30am. I was inside the house, but ran out after I heard the explosion to help my father. All of those that were killed or injured were my neighbours. They were women and children amongst them. They’re all good people, with good reputation. No one is known to have military activities. When the airstrikes started at 5:45am I heard the sound of anti-aircraft guns, but they were coming from afar, from at least two kilometres. I would have heard if the sound was coming from our area.”
According to residents, Hanan al-Drisi Faraj, a woman in her twenties living in the area, was killed by debris after the ceiling in her apartment collapsed as a result of the attack. Her sister-in-law was injured and admitted to hospital for treatment.
Members of the al-Kharshoufi family, including Asra aged eight, Hudayfa aged three, and Zakariya aged six, and their mother Rabha Musa al-Mansouri, aged around 38, were killed by debris when the walls of their house collapsed as a result of the missile strike. Previous aerial attacks killing civilians
Amnesty International has documented previous incidents where Operation Dignity – the forces allied with Libya’s UN-recognized government – launched airstrikes which killed and injured civilians. On 28 December 2014, two medical doctors were killed during an airstrike on a field hospital in Ben Jawad treating Libya Dawn fighters. On 2 December 2014, an airstrike on the main food warehouse in the city of Zuwara located near the Tunisian border killed eight civilians and injured approximately 25 others.
The organization has also gathered photographic evidence showing remnants of PTAB 2.5M high Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) cluster sub-munitions, which were found in the area of Ben Jawad, home to a Libya Dawn strategic base. In December 2014, armed clashes erupted in the area after Libya Dawn fighters, allied to the Tripoli government, launched an attack on the oil terminals at al-Sidr and Ras Lanuf. According to eyewitnesses, on at least three occasions since 18 December 2014, Operation Dignity forces have dropped cluster bombs on the town of Ben Jawad while fighting Libya Dawn. Cluster bombs are banned under international law and unexploded cluster sub-munitions pose the same indiscriminate threat to civilians as anti-personnel mines.
Amnesty International calls on the Egyptian military and all warring parties in Libya to take all feasible precautions to spare civilians and to ensure that their forces do not carry out direct attacks on civilians or attacks which are indiscriminate or disproportionate. Precautions also include giving effective advance warning of attacks which may endanger the civilian population, cancelling or suspending an attack if it becomes clear that it is likely to cause excessive civilian casualties or damage, and choosing means and methods of attack that minimize the risk to civilians and civilian objects. The presence of fighters in residential areas does not absolve warring parties from their obligation to minimize harm to civilians. All forces should also avoid deploying or locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas.
In light of mounting evidence of human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law throughout Libya, Amnesty International renews its call on the International Criminal Court to expand its investigations into alleged crimes by all sides in Libya’s armed conflict.
All states including Egypt should ensure that the 2011 UN arms embargo on Libya is fully implemented and support setting up an independent Commission of Inquiry, or a similar mechanism, to investigate serious abuses and violations of international human rights and violations of humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict. Measures must also be foreseen to ensure that the findings and recommendations of such an investigation are acted on.