An air strike which killed at least 44 civilians at a refugee detention centre near the Libyan capital of Tripoli could be a war crime, the UN’s human rights chief has said.
The Tripoli-based government had blamed the attack on forces associated with Khalifa Hafter, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) has been waging an offensive against rival militias in Tripoli since April.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the attack “may, depending on the precise circumstances, amount to a war crime”.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, meanwhile, called for an independent investigation.
Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, said the detention centre’s proximity to a weapons depot “made it a target for the airstrikes”, saying:
Coordinates of this detention centre were well-known to both sides of the conflict.
It was known that there were 600 people living inside. So there can be no excuse for this centre having been hit.
The LNA said it was targeting a nearby military site, not the detention centre.
The attack has raised questions about the European Union’s policy of cooperating with the militias that hold refugees in crowded and squalid detention centres to prevent them from crossing the Mediterranean to seek better lives in Europe.
Most of the attack’s victims were apprehended by the Libyan coast guard, which is funded and trained by the EU to reduce the number of refugees fleeing to Europe.
In Libya, militias reportedly ‘trade’ people as slaves for up to two years before they even make it on to a boat. As one humanitarian rescue worker in the Mediterranean previously told The Canary, “Libya is more terrifying than the sea”. He also insisted recently that “European states are breaking international law and removing people’s human rights… forcing people to drown”. For him, that means “they’re guilty of mass murder on the border of Europe” because:
They’re 100% in control of the situation and 100% able to allow rescue ships to operate and save life. And they’re being called on to do that by all manner of humanitarian organisations… [including] the UN high commissioner. Everyone’s saying: ‘rescue ships should be empowered, not hindered’.
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