Libya migrants: UN says attack could be war crime

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Media captionPeople gathered outside the detention centre after the air strike

An attack which killed more than 44 migrants at a detention centre outside the Libyan capital could constitute a war crime, a UN official says.

More than 130 people were severely injured in the attack, which the Libyan government blamed on an air strike by forces loyal to warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Gen Haftar’s forces accuse the government side of shelling the centre.

Most of the dead are believed to be sub-Saharan Africans, attempting to reach Europe from Libya by sea.

Thousands of migrants are held in government-run detention centres.

The country has been torn by violence and division since long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and killed in 2011.

What do we know about the attack?

A hangar housing migrants at the Tajoura Detention Centre, which houses 600 migrants, reportedly took a direct hit.

Women and children were among the victims, Guma El-Gamaty, a member of the UN-backed political dialogue group, told BBC World Service.

An official in the Libyan health ministry, Doctor Khalid Bin Attia, described the carnage for the BBC after attending the scene:

“People were everywhere, the camp was destroyed, people are crying here, there is psychological trauma, the lights cut off.

“We couldn’t see the area very clear but just when the ambulance came, it was horrible, blood is everywhere, somebody’s guts in pieces.”

Who is to blame?

The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, accused the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) of carrying out an air strike on the centre.

The “heinous crime” was “premeditated” and “precise”, it said.

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In Libya migrants are rounded up and held in government-run centres

The LNA – led by Gen Haftar – was fighting government forces in the area where the strike happened.

It had announced on Monday that it would start heavy air strikes on targets in Tripoli after “traditional means” of war had been exhausted.

The LNA said its warplanes had bombed a pro-government camp near the centre and pro-government forces had fired shells in response, hitting the migrant centre by accident.

A spokesman for the UN refugee agency, Charlie Yaxley, said it could not confirm who was behind the attack on the centre.

In a subsequent statement, the head of the UN Mission in Libya, Ghassan Salama, was quoted as saying: “This attack clearly could constitute a war crime, as it killed by surprise innocent people whose dire conditions forced them to be in that shelter.”

Why is there war in Libya?

No authority has full control over Libya and the country is extremely unstable, torn between several political and military factions, the two most important of which are led by Prime Minister Sarraj and Gen Haftar.

Gen Haftar started an offensive against the government in April.

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Media captionBBC correspondent Feras Kilani reports from Tripoli in April

The general has been active in Libyan politics for more than four decades and was one of Gadaffi’s close allies until a dispute in the late 1980s forced him to live in exile in the US.

After returning to Libya when the uprising began in 2011, he built up a power base in the east and has won some support from France, Egypt and the UAE.

Libyans have mixed feelings towards him due to his past association with Gadaffi and US connections, but do credit him for driving Islamist militants out of much of the city of Benghazi and its surroundings.

How vulnerable are migrants in Libya?

People-smuggling gangs have flourished in Libya’s political chaos, charging desperate migrants from sub-Saharan Africa thousands of dollars per head.

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Media captionWomen and children are being held in camps close to fierce fighting in Libya

Human rights groups have highlighted the poor conditions at the detention centres where many migrants end up as the EU works with the Libyan coastguard to intercept migrant boats.

Italy, one of the main landing points for migrants from Libya, has taken a hard-line stance of closing its ports to humanitarian rescue boats, accusing them of aiding people smugglers. Instead, it wants to return any migrants found in open water to Libya – where most end up in detention centres.

Following Italy’s objections, the wider EU proposed a compromise solution of setting up EU “assessment centres” in countries like Libya, where applications for asylum could be processed on foreign soil in a bid to break up the smuggling operations. Such a move was resisted by Libyan officials.

As things stand, migrants are not treated with consideration when it comes to housing them, said Leonard Doyle, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration in Geneva.

“This detention centre is right beside a militia workshop that’s been targeted in the past and it’s been hit by shrapnel,” he said.

“Migrants who are trying to get to Europe get picked up typically by the Libyan coastguard. They’re brought back to land and then they’re brought usually by bus to any of up to 60 detention centres around the city. It’s really not a good situation.”

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