An air strike hit a detention centre for mainly African migrants in a suburb of Tripoli on Tuesday, killing at least 44 and wounding more than 130, the United Nations said.
It was the highest publicly reported toll from an air strike or shelling since eastern forces under Khalifa Haftar launched a ground and aerial offensive three months ago to take Tripoli, the base of Libya’s internationally recognised government.
The conflict threatens to disrupt oil supplies, boost migration across the Mediterranean to Europe, scupper UN plans for an election and create a security void Islamist militants could fill.
Haftar’s air force attacked Tripoli’s only functioning airport, in the same area as the detention centre, causing a temporary closure to civilian traffic.
LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari said the strike destroyed a drone control room at the airport, which also has a military section.
United Nations Libya envoy Ghassan Salame condemned the strike, saying it “clearly amounts to the level of a war crime”.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was outraged by the air strike and called for an independent investigation.
The UN Security Council met on Libya behind closed doors but diplomats said the United States prevented the 15-member body from issuing a statement condemning the incident and calling for a ceasefire. It was not immediately clear why Washington could not support the statement, diplomats said.
Libya is a main departure point for African migrants fleeing poverty and war to reach Italy by boat. Many are picked up and brought back by the Libyan coast guard, supported by the European Union.
Some 6,000 are held in government-run detention centres in what human rights groups and the United Nations say are often inhuman conditions.
The UNHCR refugee agency in May called for the Tajoura centre, which holds 600 people, to be evacuated after a projectile landed nearby, injuring two migrants.
The hangar-type detention centre is next to a military camp, one of several in Tajoura, east of Tripoli’s centre, targeted by air strikes for weeks.
Frightened migrants were still at the detention centre after the strike, which partially destroyed the hangar. “Some were wounded and they died on the road running and some are still under the debris so we don’t know what to say,” said Othman Musa, a migrant from Nigeria.
“All we know is we want the UN to help people out because this place is dangerous,” he said.
Clothes, flip-flops, bags and mattresses were littered on the floor next to what remained of limbs of the dead. Bloodstains coated some walls.
“Our teams visited the centre and saw 126 people in the cell that was hit. Those who survived fear for their lives,” medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said in a statement.
By nightfall, some 250 migrants including women and children were still at the partially destroyed detention centre, the UN migration agency IOM said.
HAFTAR ASSAULT ON TRIPOLI
Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) force, allied to a parallel government in eastern Libya, has seen its advance on Tripoli held up by robust defences on the outskirts of the capital, and said it would start heavy air strikes after “traditional means” of war were exhausted.
His attempt to capture Tripoli derailed UN attempts to broker an end to the chaos in the oil- and gas-producing North African country since the violent, NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The UN called for an independent investigation and for perpetrators to be held to account.
In a statement, the Tripoli-based government blamed “war criminal Khalifa Haftar” for the incident. The LNA denied it hit the detention centre.
The LNA air campaign failed to take Tripoli in three months of fighting and last week lost its main forward base in Gharyan to Tripoli’s forces.