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Dozens Killed In Libya After Airstrike Targets Migrant Detention Center


In Libya's capital, an airstrike has killed at least 44 people. The strike hit a detention center that was crowded with migrants. The U.N.-backed government in Libya is blaming a militia leader who's been fighting for control of Tripoli. NPR's Jane Arraf has been following this story as it develops, and she's on the line now from Iraq.

Hi, Jane.


KING: So what do we know about what happened in Tripoli?

ARRAF: So it's an airstrike that happened overnight, and it seems actually to have been a direct hit on a hangar where these migrants and these refugees were housed. And the U.N. envoy to Libya is calling it a war crime. So the thing we have to remember about Libya, Noel, is it's divided between the U.N.-recognized government that controls Tripoli, the capital where this airstrike happened, and then a collection of army forces, actually, and militias under control of General Khalifa Haftar. He's been fighting to take control of the capital. So the U.N.-backed government is blaming his forces for that attack.

That center was next to actually a militia base, and he's been attacking militias. But Haftar says that it was actually due to government shelling. Now, the backdrop to this, a little bit more of it, is that on Monday he announced that he was going to intensify his airstrikes. So the fighting had actually been getting worse up until this point.

KING: So who were the victims? Who were these migrants and were they directly targeted?

ARRAF: It would be really strange if they were directly targeted.


ARRAF: But as in other conflicts and other cases where civilians are killed or hurt, it's also a case of negligence in many cases, which can also be a war crime. These people were migrants and in some cases refugees. They're mostly from Africa. And Libya is seen as the gateway to Europe, basically. So they risk everything to come to Libya. And they try to get on boats to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Most of them these days fail. A few of them make it, but a lot of them die at sea, and the rest, they're brought back by the Libyan Coast Guard. The European Union is supporting them because the last thing it wants is thousands and thousands of migrants reaching its shores.

So that's who these people were - some of the several thousand migrants and some refugees who were in detention centers.

KING: Let me ask you a bit more about Haftar, the militia leader. Who are his supporters?

ARRAF: Yeah, that's a really interesting one. You know, the word warlord - it really does fit him. He commands both army soldiers, the remnants of Moammar Gadhafi, the late dictator's forces and a collection of militias. So he was actually a really close aide of Gadhafi. But they fell out in the 1980s, and then he was welcomed to come and live in the U.S. in exile, where he lived in Virginia.

Now, the U.S. seems to have cooled on him a bit. And after Gadhafi was toppled and killed in 2011, he went back and he gathered together these forces, these forces loyal to him, he expanded them, and he actually took control of the south and the east of Libya. That hasn't been enough. He has launched a campaign to retake Tripoli. So Libya's basically never been stable since 2011. And there are fears now that the fighting is indeed getting worse.

KING: And now you have 44 people dead - at least 44, I should say.

ARRAF: Yeah.

KING: What impact is this strike likely to have, big picture?

ARRAF: Well, in terms of the migrants, the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, is calling for an immediate end to bringing migrants back to Libya because they've been living in horrendous conditions. This could lessen political support for Haftar. He has support from Egypt. He has support from the United Arab Emirates. President Trump called him a while back, although that doesn't seem to be U.S. policy. If nothing else, it will focus on the fact that this is absolutely a crisis that's going on in Libya.

KING: NPR's Jane Arraf joining us from Iraq, talking about an airstrike in Tripoli, Libya.

Thanks, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.