Civilian losses in a series of army airstrikes on Derna have sparked anger throughout Libya. The UN mission in Libya has condemned the army’s approach, warning that the deadly sorties, which have killed at last two children, could constitute a war crime.
The UN’s Deputy Special Envoy for Libya Ali al-Za’tari said that four raids carried out between 4 and 15 June by the air force loyal to General Khalifa Haftar killed two children and injured six others. They also killed one woman, two men and injured another man and woman in the eastern Libyan city, which is largely under the control of extremist group Derna Mujahideen Shura Council.
“The continuing airstrikes in urban areas populated by civilians must stop,” Ali Al-Za’tari said on Thursday.
He reminded all parties in the Libyan conflict of “their obligations to respect the provisions of international humanitarian law” adding in a statement on the UNSMIL website that direct attacks on civilians or indiscriminate attacks are war crimes, and those responsible should be prosecuted. He expressed his deep condolences to the families of the victims and wished speedy recovery to those injured.
His criticism were also voiced by representatives of the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli, which is opposed to Haftar since he refused to come under its leadership. The Government of National Accord united the armed factions in the west, some of which had been fighting forces loyal to Haftar across the country since 2014. Haftar therefore regards the GNA’s army to be “militias” and has said in interviews it was “unthinkable” to join them.
Abdessalam Kajman, one of the five presidency council deputies under GNA Prime Minister Faiez Serraj, called the bombings a crime against humanity and even compared the action to what the city experienced under the so-called Islamic State. Writing on his Facebook page on Saturday, Kajman – an Islamist and fierce critic of Haftar – said the military action was a violation of the Libyan Political Agreement and against the law.
His comments followed condemnation by fellow deputy PM Ahmed Maiteeg, who said a day before that the repeated bombing of civilian neighbourhoods “could not be tolerated”, adding it would further “deepen wounds in the country” preventing national reconciliation. “There can be no justification for the bombing of innocent civilians in this way”, Maiteeg said on his Facebook page. “We share with our people in Derna the pain caused by these irresponsible attacks….We emphasize that we will continue to work in order to end their suffering, and work at the same time to unite and avoid division and discord.”
Haftar’s warplanes have been bombing what they claimed were positions held by the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, which together with residents expelled the Islamic State Group from Derna in May 2015.
Since IS lost its first Libyan stronghold, the army has been fighting the Shura Council, which it considers a terrorist organization allied with al-Qaeda.
Wednesday’s airstrike killed one boy and wounded two other children on a playground located on Derna’s seafront promenade, where families often gather around sunset.
On June 9 there are airstrikes over the town’s Bab al-Shiha area, including one that hit a house killing a woman and her two sons. Seven other civilians were allegedly injured in the afternoon strike. On 13 June there was another airstrike in the al-Ardam district, in the south of Derna, which killed a father and his son.
“After God granted us victory over Daesh and the city returned to normalcy…we were surprised by these airstrikes, which targeted vital infrastructure with women and children present”, Derna’s Social Council – a grouping of local elders and dignitaries – said on June 9.
Reacting to the public outcry, army spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari justified the airstrikes in a press conference on Thursday. “The Army warned residents of Derna more than once not to stay or near areas where armed groups are present”, he said, adding that some strikes had been delayed out of concern for civilians.
Subsequently, army representatives claimed the latest deaths were unrelated or coincidental, insisting that the airstrikes only targeted terrorists.
“The air force is not targeting civilians in Derna but terrorist dens and weapons stockpiles”, said Kamal al-Jabali, Head of Omar Mukhtar Operations Room, which is in charge of armed action in Derna. He called the reports on the playground strike “completely unfounded”, claiming that the boy who died fell out of his father’s vehicle just as the airstrike occurred.
A source in Derna told Libya Channel that Wednesday’s attack occurred after someone from the neighbourhood fired a PK machine gun at a war plane from the crowded neighbourhood, leading to the retaliatory attack, which hit the playground. The 9 June strike, which killed a woman and her two children, hit a house where Abu Omar, a commander of the Mujahideen, was allegedly trying to transfer weapons, the same source claimed.
He said that the Mujahideen were purposely locating themselves inside crowded neighbourhoods after residents forced them to leave their main camps on the outskirts of the city. “They evacuated their camps in the entrance of the city and they’ve start arresting activists in the city,” he told.
Reacting to the civilians deaths last week, Derna Mujahideen Shura Council issued a statement on June 10, calling Khalifa Haftar a “war criminal” and Parliament President Agila Saleh a “serial killer”. “Unable to cope with the Mujahideen and the revolutionaries on the battlefield they declared a dirty war on women and children”, the Mujahideen said, warning “This war will not come to an end until these criminals and their helpers receive their just punishment, whatever the sacrifices and costs may be.”
In a separate statement on Tuesday, retired army officer Yahya al-Usta Omar – speaking in the name of “Military officers of Derna” – condemned what he called the “barbaric and cowardly act” of striking Derna and said those giving the orders were “armed militias” and “remnants of the former regime”. “We call on the neighboring areas not to respond to [Haftar’s] call for division”, al-Usta said.