Wed. 9:09 a.m.: Airstrike hits Libyan detention center, killing 44 migrants

This image taken on a mobile phone this morning shows the damage inside the detention center in Tripoli's Tajoura neighborhood after an airstrike. Libyan officials say an airstrike has struck a detention center for migrants in the capital, killing 44 people and wounding dozens. (AP Photo)

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — An airstrike hit a detention center for migrants near the Libyan capital early today, killing at least 44 people and wounding more than 130, the U.N. mission to the war-torn country said.

The airstrike raises further 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 brutal traffickers or stranded in squalid detention centers  near the front lines.

It could also lead to greater Western pressure on Khalifa Hifter, a Libyan general whose forces launched an offensive on Tripoli in April. The Tripoli-based government blamed his self-styled Libyan National Army for the airstrike and called for the U.N. to investigate.

A spokesman for Hifter’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 center in Tripoli’s Tajoura neighborhood.

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

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.

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.

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

The U.N. refugee agency also condemned the airstrike and called for an immediate end to efforts to return migrants to Libya.

UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley noted that the agency had warned less than two months ago that anyone inside the Tajoura detention center was at risk of being caught in the fighting around Tripoli. Then, an airstrike that hit nearby wounded two migrants. Yaxley said UNHCR is sending medical teams to the site after the latest airstrike.

The head of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, also condemned the strike. He called for an independent investigation and said those responsible for the “horrific crime” should be held to account. U.N. 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.”

The LNA launched an offensive against the weak Tripoli-based government in April. Hifter’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 kilometers (62 miles) from the capital. Gharyan had been a key LNA supply route.

Hifter’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.

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

Oded Berkowitz, a security analyst focused on the Libyan conflict, said Hifter’s LNA flies “a handful of obsolete aircraft” that are “in poor condition.” He said it has received spare parts from Egypt and possibly Russia, as well as decommissioned aircraft from both countries.

“Egypt and the UAE have been conducting air operations on behalf of the LNA, but there are no indications that the UAE transferred aircraft to the LNA,” he said.

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