Between 37 and 80 civilians have reportedly been killed in an airstrike on a migrant detention centre in Tajoura. The incident appears to be the worst single civilian harm event in recent Libyan history.
While most local sources blame the LNA, General Haftar’s army has rejected responsibility and accused the GNA of conducting the strike. Haftar, only days earlier, had announced to ramp up airstrikes following the LNA’s loss of Gheryan.
Reuters reported: “In a statement, the Tripoli-based government blamed the “war criminal Khalifa Haftar” for the incident,” adding that “an LNA official denied that his force had hit the detention centre, saying that militias allied to Tripoli had shelled it after a precision air strike by the LNA on a military camp.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, the GNA later accused the United Arab Emirates of conducting the airstrike with an F-16.
A report published by the Libya Herald also points at secondary explosions as the cause for the incident: “Sources in Tripoli said they heard the loud sound of explosions just after 5 am which were followed by a series of other explosions.” It added: “Unsurprisingly, there are conflicting narratives from the two conflicting sides, with the Hafter side saying they had targeted the militia base near the migrant centre and that the exploding ammunition caused the deaths of the migrants.”
The military camp mentioned is located next to the detention center on the outskirts of Tajoura. At the time, the center hosted around 600 migrants with the detention cell hit holding 126 people, most of them Sudanese and Moroccan, according to the Washington Post.
Amnesty International managed to speak to those affected and gave a more detailed account of what supposedly happened: “An Eritrean refugee said a first air strike hit a hangar adjacent to the detention centre, followed by a second strike that hit the men’s cell at the centre itself around five minutes later. Following the attack, up to 300 migrants and refugees – some of whom were returned to Libya after being intercepted in the Mediterranean in recent weeks – are now out in the streets of Tajoura, frightened and waiting for urgent assistance.”
Initial reports put the death toll at 40. However, most sources, such as UNSMIL, currently put the minimum death toll at 44. Additionally, 130 civilians were reportedly wounded. OCHA later raised the death toll to 53, including six children.
Harun Maruf later tweeted the number of casualties had risen: “An Official in Libya says death toll from airstrikes on migrant detention centre near Tripoli has reached 60.”
Anas El Gomati reported another significant increase to 80 civilians dead and 100 injured.
An on-the-ground investigation by Amnesty International later concluded: “The following day, an LNA spokesman confirmed that the LNA had carried out the strikes on the Tajoura compound, insisting that it had targeted a military objective and blaming the DCIM for endangering the migrants by detaining them in a military camp. However, the LNA did not explain why it had specifically targeted the DCIM detention centre. The facility has been used as a DCIM migrants detention centre for several years, so its civilian status was clear. The LNA’s spokesman did not clarify whether the LNA knew that this target was a DCIM detention centre or whether they only learned this after the strike. If the former were true, and the detention centre was the target, this would make the strike a deliberate attack on civilians and as such a war crime. If the latter is true, the LNA must explain on what basis it attacked the DCIM centre and what measures it took to verify that target before launching the strike.”
A UN report published in December 2019 said about responsibility: “The Panel has established that, until now, the only night operational capability for the delivery of explosive ordnance by the HAF was the Wing Loong unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), and possibly the IOMAX Archangel. The HAF is not operating any assets under its sole control with a night operational capability to accurately and precisely deliver HE A/C bombs of the type used in this incident. The attack on Tajura shows some of the hallmarks of the use of precision guided munitions (PGM), as the odds of two unguided ‘dumb’ aircraft bombs both hitting the roofs of buildings, in what is a relatively under developed area in terms of low spatial density infrastructure, would be very low.
The Panel also has independent evidence from a reliable confidential source that an unknown number of Mirage 2000-9 fighter ground attack (FGA) were using Al Khadim airbase, and Jufra as operating bases at that time. The HAF does not possess such aircraft types. A full maintenance and weapons support team would also need to be provided by the supplying Member State, as the HAF has neither the training, equipment or explosive ordnance types to support the operation of such an aircraft type. The Mirage 2000-9 has a fully night operational capable airframe, with the capability to also deliver PGM.
Therefore, the Panel finds it highly probable that the air strike was conducted using PGM at night by a modern FGA aircraft owned and operated by a Member State, acting in direct support of the HAF. The Panel reserves identification of this Member State until further physical evidence or imagery emerges to increase attribution confidence levels, and continues to investigate the circumstances of the air strikes.”
The GNA released a report on the incident in February 2020 where it said 37 civilians had been killed and 40 injured. It provided names for 24 victims.
The incident occured at approximately 5:05 am local time.