CAIRO (AP) — The United Nations revealed on Monday chilling new details about an airstrike that smashed into a migrant detention center in Libya, killing at least 50 people.
The July attack, which ranked among the deadliest assaults on civilians since the start of Libya’s civil war, sparked international condemnation and accusations of war crimes.
The 13-page-report said the conduct of compound officials at the time of the deadly attack may have contributed to the high death toll.
It also documented numerous violations of international law by warring Libyan militias and urged further investigation to ensure accountability. It was published Monday by the U.N. Support Mission in Libya and the U.N. Human Rights Office.
The Tajoura detention facility, run by a militia allied with the U.N.-backed government based in the capital, Tripoli, placed civilian refugees “in grave danger” in manifold ways, the report said.
Not only did the center sit in a military complex beside an ammunition depot, making it a prime target for opposition forces laying siege to the capital, but guards at the center also prevented detainees from fleeing after the first airstrike hit.
Witnesses told U.N. investigators that they tried to escape but were stopped by guards and forced back inside.
“There are grounds to believe that migrants and refugees could have been saved, and their right to life protected, had they not been prevented from exiting following the first airstrike,” which bombed the nearby weapons depot, the report said.
The second airstrike directly hit the hangar filled with migrants, killing at least 50 people and injuring over a hundred others.
Several witnesses alleged that the head of the detention center burst into the hangar, shooting and killing three refugees who tried to escape, the report added. Surveillance camera footage shows at least one guard brandishing an assault rifle between the airstrikes. The U.N. could not verify the migrants’ claims. Officials questioned by the U.N. denied the allegations.
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. Migrants seeking better lives in Europe often land in Libyan centers after perilous journeys at the mercy of traffickers who hold them for ransom from their families.
Rights groups have called for the total shutdown of the detention centers, which are an integral and contentious part of the European Union’s efforts to keep migration across the Mediterranean at bay.
Refugees held in the Tajoura facility had long accused officials of various abuses, including forced labor. Many told U.N. investigators that militiamen compelled them to clean weapons, load ammunition, offload military shipments and complete other dangerous tasks.
These violations of international law by the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord and its allied militias “in no way absolves the party responsible for the airstrike,” which targeted a civilian site on a well-publicized list of places that should not be attacked, the report continued.
A U.N. panel of experts suggested last fall that a foreign patron of Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based forces, which are trying to capture the capital, bore responsibility for the attack.
Since Haftar launched his offensive last April to wrest authority from the U.N.-recognized government, the United Arab Emirates, along with Egypt and other countries, have provided powerful weapons to spur his advances.
While no country has yet been named, suspicion for the strike fell on the UAE, which has a fleet of Mirage 2000-9 fighter jets that can operate at night and deliver precision-guided munitions and missiles. The UAE has not acknowledged playing a role in the attack.
Countries with interests in oil-rich Libya’s long-running war convened earlier this month in Berlin, where they pledged to halt their interference and respect a widely-violated arms embargo. Over the weekend, the U.N. decried “continued blatant violations” of the embargo by multiple conference participants.
Despite a flurry of diplomacy and tentative cease-fire, fighting has raged as Haftar’s forces advance toward the key western city of Misrata.
On Monday, Libya’s telecommunications company announced a major disruption in internet service across the country’s south and east due to a technical malfunction near the town of Abugrein, the focal point of recent clashes and Haftar’s advance. The company said connection problems persisted because of “security conditions,” and promised a fix as soon as possible.
Reporting by Isabel Debre
Image: In this July 3, 2019 file photo, debris covers the ground and an emergency vehicle after an airstrike at a detention center in Tajoura, east of Tripoli in Libya (AP Photo/Hazem Ahmed, File)