A helicopter from Libya’s Tripoli-based government was shot down on Tuesday, killing at least nine passengers, an official said, blaming the rival, internationally recognised administration, which denied the accusation.
Tripoli Chief of Staff spokesman Colonel Ali al-Sheikhi said the helicopter departed at noon to transport salaries to the town of Surman and was shot down near the coastal al-Maya area west of Tripoli. He added that 14 bodies had been retrieved so far but no survivors had been found.
Colonel Mustafa Sharkasi, a spokesman for the Tripoli-based air force, said that among the bodies that had been recovered was that of Colonel Hussein Abu Diyya, a senior officer in the Fajr Libya militia, which controls the capital.
“We think that all the passengers are dead,” he added.
Sharkasi said the aircraft was unarmed and blamed militant groups allied to the internationally recognised government for carrying out this “criminal” act.
That administration, located in the east of the country, denied it had anything to do with the aircraft’s downing.
“The general command of the armed forces is brave enough to claim the operations that its units carry out anywhere in the country,” Tobruk-based government spokesman Khalifa el-Obeidi told the official news agency.
Sharkasi vowed Tripoli would retaliate “at the appropriate time and place”.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Tripoli-allied navy spokesman Col. Ayoub Gassim said his forces were still looking through the wreckage, parts of which had bullet holes in it. The area is rife with an assortment of rogue militias, armed human trafficking gangs and Islamist fighters.
“When we first went by boat to retrieve the bodies, we were attacked from the coast near the al-Maya area,” he said, adding that Tripoli-allied forces then moved in and stopped the fire.”
The Tripoli defence ministry declared a “maximum state of alert for the armed forces and thuwars (former rebel fighters) with a view to eventual retaliation.”
It called on citizens to “provide any information that can help to identify those who fired on the aircraft.”
Fierce clashes erupted after the crash between armed militias from the city of Zawiya, which support the Tripoli government, and from the town of Washafana, whose fighters the Zawiya militias blamed for shooting down the helicopter, the Guardian reported.
Many Libyan militias enjoy a high degree of independence and are more loyal to their local regions than the rival governments in whose name they are ostensibly fighting.
Sharkasi said the helicopter was on its way to Tripoli from an unspecified location when it was hit.
In addition to Abu Diyya, three crew members and “employees, including bank employees who were carrying funds for state employees” were on board.
Libya descended into chaos after the October 2011 ouster and killing of long-time dictator Moammar Gaddafi.
The two governments are vying for power, and armed groups are battling for control of its vast energy resources.
The capital was overrun in August 2014 by the Fajr Libya militia alliance which included Islamists.
The militia later established a rival government and a parliament that forced the internationally recognised administration to flee to the country’s remote east.
The United Nations has been brokering peace talks between the two sides for nearly a year, aimed at forming a government of national unity.
Those talks have virtually broken down this month, but UN envoy Bernardino Leon said Wednesday that the process would carry on.
A unity government in Libya is seen as the best chance to tackle the rise there of the Islamic State group and migrant-smuggling from Libya across the Mediterranean to Europe.
The UN Security Council has threatened to impose sanctions on those who block a peace deal or undermine any political transition in Libya.