Washington: The US military said on Sunday that it had conducted drone strikes on a Daesh training camp in Libya, killing 17 militants in the first US air strikes in the strife-torn North African nation since January.
A half-dozen “precision strikes” on Friday hit a training camp about 241km southeast of Sirte, from which militants were moving fighters in and out of the country, stockpiling weapons and equipment, and plotting and conducting attacks, the Pentagon’s Africa Command said in a statement. Three vehicles also were destroyed.
Between August and December of 2016, the military carried out 495 air strikes to drive Daesh out of Sirte, a coastal city that until then was the group’s stronghold. On January 18, just before President Barack Obama left office, armed Reaper drones and two US Air Force B-2 bombers attacked Daesh training camps south of Sirte, killing more than 80 militants including some the military said were involved in plotting terrorist attacks in Europe.
The most recent strikes underscore the major threat that Daesh still poses in the region, despite the heavy losses it has suffered. The militant group is believed to have several hundred fighters in Libya who have taken sanctuary in its vast ungoverned spaces to plot attacks inside and outside the country, and send fighters into neighbouring countries like Tunisia.
“We’re seeing some signs of their regrouping in Libya,” Amanda J. Dory, the Pentagon’s top policy official for Africa until this summer, said at a Council on Foreign Relations panel discussion here this month.
President Donald Trump authorised the air strikes based on the recommendation of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, an administration official said on Sunday.
The Africa Command statement noted that the strikes, which military officials said separately were carried out by armed Reaper drones flying from a base in Sicily, were conducted in coordination with the government of Prime Minister Fayez Serraj of Libya.
Reda Eissa, a spokesman for the coalition of militias backed by Serraj’s Government of National Accord, said he had no information about Friday’s air strikes. He referred queries to the government’s defence ministry, which did not respond to requests for comment.
Libyan analysts said the area where the strikes took place is controlled by another major power broker in Libya’s fractious political landscape, Gen Khalifa Haftar, a former Libyan army officer who was a major figure in the 2011 rebellion against the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.
The US air strikes come at a particularly chaotic moment for Libya. In the east, Haftar has strengthened his position, receiving a stream of Western ministers, including the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.
Elsewhere, the Italian government has struck deals with smuggling militias to cut human trafficking to Europe. The capital, Tripoli, has seen sporadic violence as rival groups, including the United nations (UN)-backed unity government, jostle for supremacy.
The US strikes took place in a desert region south of the oil crescent, where key ports changed hands between rival groups several times in spring.
“The strikes are the logical consequence to the change of the tactics of [Daesh],” said Col Wolfgang Pusztai, a former Austrian defence attache to Libya who follows the country closely. “This is to keep the pressure on them, as none of the Libyans considers the fight against [Daesh] a priority.”
On Wednesday, in the latest attempt to revive Libya’s stuttering peace efforts, the UN envoy Ghassan Salame said he would seek to renegotiate a national political agreement signed in Morocco in December 2015. That announcement, at the UN in New York, acknowledged the chronic weakness of the unity government, which has dismally failed to assert its authority beyond Tripoli, yet retains the backing of the international community.
Salame said the UN was ready to facilitate a “security dialogue” with Libya’s many armed factions with a view to drawing them into the political process.
US military officials said on Sunday that Friday’s strikes were conducted under Obama-era rules designed to protect civilians outside active war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Those rules — called the Presidential Policy Guidance, or PPG — are in the process of being replaced by the Trump administration to streamline the process for approving drone strikes and commando raids in areas outside traditional war zones including Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
Issued by Obama in 2013, those rules require “near certainty” that a bombing will kill no civilians, and the target must pose a threat to Americans — not just to US interests. The new procedures awaiting Trump’s approval would lay the groundwork for expanding possible counterterrorism missions in countries where Islamic militants are active but the US has not previously tried to kill or capture them.
For the more than 500 other air strikes in Libya this year and last year, the Obama White House authorised an exemption to its rules and effectively made Libya a fourth combat zone, along with Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. It was not immediately clear why the Trump administration did not temporarily turn back on the exemption from the Obama-era rules.