An airstrike hit a detention centre for migrants near the Libyan capital of Tripoli early on Wednesday, killing at least 44 people and wounding dozens of others in an attack that the UN human rights chief said could amount to a war crime.
The Tripoli-based government blamed the attack on forces associated with General Khalifa Hifter, whose Libyan National Army has been waging an offensive against rival militias in the capital of the war-torn North African country since April.
It refocused attention and raised questions about the European Union’s policy of cooperating with the militias that hold migrants in crowded and squalid detention centres to prevent them from crossing the Mediterranean to seek better lives in Europe.
Most of them were apprehended by the Libyan coast guard, which is funded and trained by the EU to stem the flow of migrants.
At the United Nations, the Security Council scheduled an emergency session for later Wednesday on the airstrike in Tripoli’s Tajoura neighbourhood, and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an independent investigation.
Hifter’s forces said they were targeting a nearby military site, not the detention centre. There also were suspicions of involvement by foreign countries allied with his forces. Countries assisting Hifter include Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
Two migrants interviewed by the Associated Press said the airstrike hit a compound that houses a weapons warehouse and an adjacent detention centre holding about 150 migrants, mostly Sudanese and Moroccans. The two spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
The online video purported to be from inside the detention centre showed blood and human remains mixed with rubble and the belongings of the victims.
The UN gave an initial figure of 44 dead and more than 130 wounded. But the two migrants told the AP that three or four escaped harm and about 20 were wounded. They said the rest were killed, indicating the final death toll could be much higher.
Prince Alfani, the Libya medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, visited the detention centre hours before the airstrike and said it had held 126 migrants. Survivors fear for their lives, he said, urging their immediate evacuation.
Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, said the detention centre’s proximity to the weapons depot “made it a target for the airstrikes.”
“Coordinates of this detention centre were well-known to both sides of the conflict,” Yaxley said. “It was known that there were 600 people living inside. So there can be no excuse for this centre having been hit.”
He said the agency had warned less than two months ago that anyone in the complex could be caught in the fighting and an earlier airstrike nearby had wounded two migrants. The UNHCR is sending medical teams to the site, he added.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the attack “may, depending on the precise circumstances, amount to a war crime.” The attack “killed by surprise innocent people whose dire conditions forced them to be in that shelter,” said UN envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame.
Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Amnesty International, said the attack “must be investigated as a war crime” by the International Criminal Court.
The deaths are the “consequences of Libya and Europe’s callous migration policies,” she said The group said its research indicated a weapons storage warehouse was in the same compound as the detention centre and some of the migrants were forced to work at the military site.
The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, which is backed by the UN, called for an investigation by the world body.
Libya became a major crossing point for migrants to Europe after the overthrow and death of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, when the North African nation was thrown into chaos, armed militias proliferated and central authority collapsed.
At least 6,000 migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and other nations are locked in dozens of detention facilities in Libya run by militias accused of torture and other abuses.
There is limited food and other supplies for the migrants, who often end up there after arduous journeys at the mercy of abusive traffickers who hold them for ransom from their families. More than 3,000 migrants are in danger because they are held in detention centres near the front lines, the UN refugee agency said.
“This incident underscores the urgency to provide all refugees and migrants with safe shelter until their asylum claims can be processed or they can be safely repatriated,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
General Khaled el-Mahjoub, a spokesman for Hifter’s LNA forces, denied targeting the detention centre, saying it was the militia camp in the Tajoura neighbourhood that was the target. He did not deny, however, that the migrant detention centre was hit.
“We didn’t give orders to target the shelter,” he said.
Later Wednesday, LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mesmari also denied that its forces targeted the detention centre and said the UN should investigate. He also blamed another militia in Misrata for airstrikes south of Tripoli that killed children in what he termed “a terrorist operation.”
The EU urged Libyan authorities to better protect migrants, with its top diplomat and two top policy commissioners saying the attack highlights “the dire and vulnerable situation of migrants caught up in the spiral of violence.”