The general command of the Libyan armed forces denied any involvement in a helicopter crash on Tuesday that claimed the lives of several civilians and military personnel affiliated with the rival government in Tripoli.
Speaking on the phone to Libya Channel, a member of the official army’s leadership in Al-Marj rejected accusations that army forces shot down a helicopter that crashed into the sea near Zawiya, west of Tripoli around noon on Tuesday. The incident triggered clashes in the area and stirred fears of further escalation in the conflict between Libyan factions.
Circumstances of the crash, in which all 19 passengers on board are believed to have perished, are yet to be clarified. Among the victims are three commanders from Libya Dawn – the coalition that took over power in Tripoli last summer forcing the internationally recognized government to operate out of eastern Libya.
Initial statements from security sources in the nearby city of Zawiya suggested the crash may have been an accident, but the spokesman of the Tripoli-based army command, Ali al-Sheikhi was quick to tell the BBC that the helicopter had been shot down. More significantly, the spokesman of the official Libyan army, Mohamed al-Hijazi, claimed responsibility for the attackin a TV interview on Tuesday afternoon, but was later summoned and rebuked by the army’s general command.
Meanwhile, photos claimed to be of the aircraft wreck emerged, showing the impact of projectiles.
The helicopter was returning to Tripoli from the western Libyan town of Surman when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed into the sea off the coast at Al-Maya, just east of Zawiya. It was said to be used to carry cash to bank branches in western Libya and military commanders boarded the flight back to Tripoli to avoid the coast road, where skirmishes are frequent.
A list of the passengers was issued by the Security Directorate in Zawiya. Tuesday evening efforts by the local branch of the Red Crescent to retrieve the bodies were still underway and security sources said that 13 bodies had been found. Gruesome photos said to be of several victims circulate on the internet.
The military leadership in Tripoli blamed the attack on rival forces in Western Libya that are loyal to the Libyan army. The chief of staff of the army in Tripoli – which is not recognized by Libya’s official government – issued a statement strongly condemning the “cowardly terrorist act” and pointing the finger at “the so-called Tribes Army allied with remnants of the [Gaddafi] regime”. The statement also called on “all military units and affiliated revolutionary brigades” in western Libya to mobilize, secure the coastal road west of Tripoli and respond to the “criminal terrorist gangs”.
“Tribes Army” refers to armed forces in western Libya, namely Zintan and the Warshefana area, that are loyal to the official Libyan army. According to Libya Dawn, the anti-aircraft fire that caused the crash came from Al-Maya in Warshefana area. But the Warshefana Military Council, the Supreme Council of the Warshefana tribe and the Al-Maya Municipality, vehemently denied any implication of Warshefana forces, also condemning the attack.
In a statement, Al-Maya Municipality claimed the attack was the work of “agents of fitna [division]” who want to “cause strife between the tribes and destroy Libya’s social tissue”.
Fierce clashes erupted immediately after the crash between Libya Dawn-affiliated brigades from Zawiya and Washafana forces in the al-Maya area.