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Published

December 24, 2019

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Despite October ceasefires, the violence has continued with atrocities alleged on both sides.

Eleven weeks on from the October 9th launch of a Turkish-led offensive against Kurds in northern Syria, known as ‘Operation Peace Spring’, fighting continues to rage with civilians still encountering significant violence.

Since the beginning of the latest clashes, Airwars researchers have overall monitored between 244 and 312 reported civilian deaths resulting from air, artillery and ground action by both sides, as well as the wounding of between 705 and 924 civilians.

See our searchable database of reported Turkish civilian harm events in Syria

The recent conflict between Turkish-led forces and the Kurds has also seen a sharp rise in reported atrocities from both sides, which could be considered war crimes according to international law.

While the majority of civilian deaths tracked by Airwars resulted from actions by Turkey and its proxies, around one in four fatalities were however reportedly caused by Kurdish strikes – a significant change from Afrin.

Between 172 and 225 civilian fatalities and between 419 and 553 civilian injuries were attributed by local sources to Turkey and its proxy forces in Syria across 117 incidents, which are presently graded as fairly reported by Airwars. This means that two or more credible, uncontested sources have reported civilian harm blamed on a specific belligerent.

Meanwhile, between 55 and 64 civilian fatalities and between 208 and 260 injuries were attributed to Kurdish armed groups in 35 civilian harm incidents for which Airwars has assessed the reporting as fair.

Reported civilian harm from Kurdish counterfire – the incidents

The offensive, which Turkey had been preparing for since July 2019, followed the chaotic initial withdrawal of US forces from Syria in a bid by President Trump to deflate US-Turkish tensions. The assault by Ankara is the latest in a long history of hostilities between the Turkish state, and Kurdish separatists affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

However, more recent tensions began after the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), operating under the broader umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), began to grow in prominence in northern Syria during their successful campaign against ISIS, with the support of the United States and the international Coalition.

The SDF’s growing strength despite thousands of losses in the war against ISIS – and the significant territory it now controlled in northern Syria – reportedly elevated fears in Ankara that an autonomous administration dominated by the YPG on its restive border could inspire separatist sentiments amongst Kurds in southern Turkey.

The apparent purpose of this incursion, therefore, was both to weaken the YPG, and to create a buffer zone along the Syria-Turkey border, by driving out the local Kurdish population and replacing it with forcibly returned Syrian refugees, a policy which some academics and commentators have described as displaying the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.

‘Operation Peace Spring’

The beginning of the recent campaign saw Turkish forces and their proxy allies on the ground bombard key towns and urban settlements under the control of the SDF. such as Ras al-Ain in Hasakah province; Tal Abyad in Raqqa province; and Kobani in Aleppo province, as well as numerous other civilian-populated areas of northern Syria. The SDF in turn hit back, targeting Turkish forces and affiliated groups’ positions in Syria as well as towns in southern Turkey.

In stark contrast to Turkey’s Afrin campaign in January 2018 – when the SDF had also been embroiled in their major campaign against ISIS in northeastern Syria, leaving them vulnerable to Turkey’s offensive – Kurdish forces appeared more prepared this time. The proportion of Kurdish counterstrikes to Turkish attacks in this campaign are significantly higher than previous campaigns, as evidenced by Airwars monitoring. In the Afrin campaign, there were 4.75 Turkish incidents for every Kurdish incident, while in comparison during this latest confrontation, there have been three Turkish incidents for every Kurdish incident.

While supposed ceasefires between the warring parties were reached on October 17th and October 22nd, mediated by Washington and Moscow respectively, the violence did not cease and civilians continued to be caught in attacks. Since October 18th, following the implementation of the ceasefire, 57 additional civilian harm event allegations have been levelled against Turkey and 25 such allegations against Kurdish forces.

The worst reported event since October 17th occurred just one day after the ceasefire was announced in the village of Zirgan, close to the city of Ras al-Ain, where between 12 and 19 civilians were killed, including four children, in what Kurdish media sources described as a massacre.

Turkish jets struck a convoy heading from Cizire to Serekaniye. Initial reports say that the airstrike left many people dead or wounded. Journalists from France and Brazil are also reported to be in the targeted convoy. pic.twitter.com/LfJlmfrkbZ

— Firat News Agency (@anfenglish) October 13, 2019

The ineffectual ceasefire also failed to protect humanitarian workers from harm. On November 3rd, a Doctors Without Borders convoy was targeted by an alleged Turkish mortar strike, killing Zau Seng, a member of the Free Burma Rangers and injuring three others.

Today, Nov. 3, our Kachin cameraman and medic from Burma, Zau Seng, was killed today by an FSA/Turkish Army mortar strike that hit our CCP. Our Iraqi coordinator was also wounded. Thank you for your prayers during this time. https://t.co/LT1YANLbj1

— Free Burma Rangers (@FreeBurmaRangrs) November 3, 2019

Diplomatic negotiations between Ankara, Moscow and Washington gave the Kurds time to withdraw their forces 30km back from a 120km long strip along the Turkey-Syria border – at least partially granting Turkey its ‘safe zone’.

However, this was achieved at the expense of a humanitarian crisis in northern Syria. Beyond the disastrous loss of life, hundreds of thousands have been forcefully displaced as a result of the fighting. According to Refugee International, over 215,000 people have so far been driven from their homes as a result of the offensive, compounding an already bleak humanitarian situation in northeast Syria, where, according to the United Nations, 1.3 million people were already in need of humanitarian assistance.

Allegations of war crimes

Civil society activists, human rights groups, medical personnel and journalists have all accused the Turkish military and Turkish-backed groups of committing war crimes and human rights violations over the course of the offensive. These abuses have taken various forms. Local sources have for example reported numerous cases of summary execution of civilians and public officials.

The most notorious case was the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army’s (SNA) execution of Hevrin Khalaf of the Syria Future Party and the mutilation of her body, which was captured on camera. Numerous other cases have emerged of Turkish-backed forces summarily executing civilians and combatants alike. The M4 highway, which runs parallel with Syria’s northern border with Turkey has become synonymous with summary executions and extrajudicial killings. A plethora of videos have emerged showing Turkish-backed forces taunting victims before killing them and mutilating their bodies.

Here are the murderer gangs of leader of Future of Syria Party MARTYR Hevrin Khalaf. pic.twitter.com/bYDwWolc1N

— Turkey Untold (@TurkeyUntold) October 12, 2019

However, there is also ample evidence to indicate that atrocities have been carried out by both sides of the conflict. In one case, on October 20th, YPG forces reportedly handcuffed and executed seven civilians, including three from the same family in Ras al-Ain on charges of conspiring with Turkish-backed forces in the region. The fact that these atrocities have been so widespread from both sides points to an unprecedented level of brutality in this campaign, that was absent even from the Afrin offensive in 2018.

Additionally, reports have emerged of indiscriminate shelling by Turkey of medical facilities in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, as well as civilian-populated neighbourhoods of major cities such as Qamishli.

Turkish backed forces have also been accused of looting and pillaging the property of civilians, with numerous reports emerging over the course of the conflict suggesting that the SNA had allegedly ransacked homes, shops, businesses and farms belonging to civilians in northern Syria.

Finally, the suspected use of prohibited weapons, allegedly by Turkey, has been well documented by journalists and medical personnel. According to a report by Dr Abbas Mansouran, a senior member of the medical staff at the main hospital of Hasakah, approximately 30 victims, mostly civilians were admitted to the hospital with severe and unusual burns and injuries, which he believes were caused by chemical weapons use, specifically the use of white phosphorus munitions.

According to Dr Mansouran, Turkish forces may have used dense inert metal explosive (DIME) bombs, which have similar chemical properties to white phosphorus.

    Airwars reached out for comment from both Turkish and YPG military authorities for this article, though had received no response at time of publication.
▲ A civilian in a wheelchair and his helper attempt to flee Mishrafa village, Hasakah Governorate, Syria, on October 9th following an alleged Turkish strike (via @dersi4m)

Published

December 19, 2019

Written by

Chris Woods

Airwars analysis of official data indicates US officials were privately acknowledging 70 civilian deaths at Hawijah, long before the Dutch government admitted the event.

The Netherlands Ministry of Defence (Defensie) has provided an inaccurate statement to both MPs and the media, Airwars analysis indicates – on the eve of a critical parliamentary debate on the deaths of scores of civilians in Iraq which had resulted from a Dutch airstrike in 2015.

Credible reports at the time had indicated that at least 70 civilians died at Hawijah in June 2015, after a Coalition airstrike detonated ISIS explosives held in a VBIED factory. Much of the surrounding neighbourhood was destroyed, and the Coalition almost immediately ordered an inquiry into the attack, which has never been published.

However it was only on November 4th 2019 that the Dutch government finally admitted responsibility for Hawijah – following a major investigation by news organisations NOS and NRC.

Since then, as a political crisis has engulfed the coalition government, Defensie has sought to play down or dismiss reports that 70 civilians died at Hawijah – and also that US defence officials had privately conceded those deaths long before the Dutch admission.

Dismissing the evidence

One problem for Defensie was that several pieces of evidence appeared to contradict their denials of 70 civilian deaths. In April 2017 CENTCOM officials had declared 80 non-US civilian deaths, in frustration at their unnamed Coalition allies not accepting public responsibility for events. The suspicion remains that Hawijah formed a significant proportion of those 80 deaths.

Then in December 2018, an on the record email to Dutch reporters from then-Coalition official spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan explicitly stated that “The strike to the VBIED factory caused secondary explosions that unfortunately killed 70 civilians despite the precautions the Coalition took to mitigate civilian casualties.”

Finally, in a declassified 2018 Pentagon report produced by the US National Defense University (NDU) – which was obtained by the Washington Post and published in February 2019 – a graphic appeared to show a clear casualty spike in official US military tallies of civilian deaths in Iraq, at exactly the point at which Hawijah occurred.

With the US-led Coalition recently and inexplicably withdrawing its estimate of 70 civilians killed at Hawijah, Defensie is also now seeking to downplay the importance of the NDU graphic.

In a statement issued to parliament on December 18th, the defense ministry claimed that the NDU graphic did not in fact feature the Hawijah data, asserting instead that “It can be concluded from the table that, based on investigations into possible civilian casualties as a result of the Coalition’s deployment of weapons, CENTCOM was able to confirm [only] that a higher number of civilian casualties occurred in this period than in the preceding and subsequent period. [translated from Dutch]”

 

How Airwars assessment indicates Defensie is wrong

A review by Airwars shows that based on official Coalition data, the casualty spike in the NDU graphic can in fact only be explained if the Hawijah event had been included – indicating that US officials have long privately counted those 70 deaths in their own data, despite the Netherlands hiding its own involvement in the event.

For its assessment, Airwars examined all confirmed (‘Credible’) Coalition civilian harm events declared for the time window of May 1st to July 31st 2015. There were 17 such events totalling 106 confirmed deaths and 9 injuries if Hawijah was included – or 16 events with 36 deaths and 9 injuries if Hawijah was excluded, as Defensie claimed was the case.

However, the NDU graphic makes clear that the 2015 casualty spike relates only to Iraq – meaning that twelve Syrian events should be discounted. Three of the incidents had also been confirmed only in 2019, meaning that they were deemed Credible only after the NDU study was published.

That left just three events in Iraq: Hawihjah with 70 deaths; and two incidents in July 2015 each injuring one civilian according to the official data.

The casualty spike in the NDU graphic could only therefore be explained if the Hawijah estimate of 70 deaths had been included in the official tally, Airwars concluded.

“Defensie appears to have made a major error in claiming to the Dutch parliament that Hawijah  was excluded from the NDU study data,” notes Airwars director Chris Woods. “In fact, the only possible explanation for the visible casualty spike in summer 2015, depicted in the NDU graphic, was that the Hawijah event was already being included privately by the Pentagon in its own assessments of civilian harm resulting from Coalition actions.”

Screenshot of Airwars assessment of all declared Coalition civilian harm events for the period May 1st 2015 to July 31st 2015.

▲ The controversial NDU graphic which indicates that by 2018, the Pentagon was already privately counting a major loss of civilian life in Iraq during the summer of 2015, at the time of the Hawijah event.

Published

December 11, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Pioneering conflict monitor aims to raise at least £20,000 during holiday period

Airwars is launching its first public fundraising appeal in over two years as 2019 draws to a close – hoping to raise at least £20,000 during December for vital work tracking civilian harm in multiple wars.

Founded in 2014, Airwars is now monitoring civilian harm across six conflicts, and has recorded more than 51,000 locally alleged deaths. Admissions of more than 1,300 civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria by the US-led Coalition have been majorly driven by Airwars’ own findings. However resources remain a challenge – particularly since the organisation refuses funding from belligerents it is actively monitoring, like the US and UK.

Donations raised during December will be used for example to further investigate civilian harm claims from Russian, US-led Coalition, and Turkish strikes in Syria – and also to help launch upcoming Airwars public microsites on US counter terrorism actions and associated civilian harm in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen – three heavily under-reported conflicts.

“Our emphasis at Airwars is on what civilians themselves say is happening to them during war,” says Dmytro Chupryna, head of fundraising. “We’re internationally respected for our rigorous approach, and continue to provide a vital counter-narrative to military claims that modern warfare causes little civilian harm. Yet despite our significant impact, our budget remains tiny. Public donations are much needed to help continue our crucial work.”

Please donate today

Airwars has released a fundraising video as part of the December campaign

▲ Part of the Airwars team in the London office, December 2019

Published

November 29, 2019

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Promises follow three weeks after Ministry of Defence claimed responsibility for the 2015 Hawijah incident

The Dutch government is promising to introduce transparency improvements for conflict-related civilian harm resulting from its military actions. The announcement came on November 25th, in the wake of an ongoing national scandal, following the withholding for more than four years of details of Dutch involvement in an airstrike on Hawijah, Iraq, on the night of June 2nd-3rd 2015, which led to the likely deaths of at least 70 civilians.

In a comprehensive letter to parliament on November 25th, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld promised to retroactively report the number of missions, locations, target type and weapon deployment for the entire first deployment of the Dutch contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition from October 2014 to June 2016.

In the event of future air operations, such weekly reporting would be standardised. In addition, Bijleveld promised to ensure sufficient capacity at the Ministry to monitor possible civilian harm cases during future military action. And parliament will be confidentially briefed about investigations into civilian casualties as soon as possible.

The government says it is also exploring possible compensation options for victims of Dutch military actions in Iraq.

Debate

In the weeks since the government admitted the role of the Royal Netherlands Air Force in the deadly Hawijah strike, the crisis has threatened to engulf several leading political figures – including the Prime Minister.

A parliamentary debate on November 27th focused significantly on to what extent Prime Minister Mark Rutte had been informed about possible civilian casualties in the airstrike on an ISIS weapon storage facility in Hawijah. MP Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) asked if perhaps “the prolonging of the [Dutch] mission [against ISIS] had been more important than telling the truth”?

Rutte said that Hawijah was not discussed in cabinet meetings before the government had prolonged Dutch military action against ISIS on June 19th, 2015 – just three weeks after the incident. He argued that “it [information about possible civilian casualties in Hawijah] would not have been relevant [for the decision to prolong the mission], as we knew before starting this mission that there was a risk of civilian casualties”.

During the debate, MP Salima Belhaj of the D66 party – which is a part of the ruling coalition –  handed in a motion calling for a fact finding mission on the ground to determine how many civilians died at Hawijah.

Defence Minister Bijleveld responded that while she was unsure if such an investigation would generate any new information, she would seriously look into options.

The Socialist Party also handed in a motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and the Cabinet, which while supported by some opposition parties, did not pass.

Gisteren dienden we een motie van wantrouwen in. We vroegen zo vaak naar de waarheid, maar we kregen leugens 👇 #burgerslachtoffers #Irak pic.twitter.com/ypM49wxDVz

— Lilian Marijnissen (@MarijnissenL) November 28, 2019

MP Lilian Marijnissen (Socialist Party) handed in a motion of no confidence, claiming that “We asked for the truth so many times, but all we got were lies”.

‘Parliament misled in 2015’

The first public Dutch acknowledgement of responsibility for civilian casualties in the war against ISIS earlier this month followed after an investigation into Dutch involvement in the Hawijah case published by news outlets NRC and NOS.

In a letter to parliament on November 4th, Bijleveld wrote that her predecessor Jeanine Hennis had wrongly informed parliament on the matter. Hennis herself had informed MPs on June 23rd 2015 that “there has been no Dutch involvement in civilian casualties”, despite having received a CENTCOM report stating that claims of civilian casualties in the Hawija incident were deemed ‘credible’ a week earlier, according to Bijleveld.

On November 25th, Bijleveld released a second letter to parliament. She wrote that Hennis had personally informed the former Minister of Foreign Affairs (Bert Koenders) and “presumably” Prime Minister Mark Rutte about Hawijah back in 2015. According to Hennis who is cited in the new letter, her tone had not been alarming, but she did mention that further inquiries would look into the possibility of civilian casualties. Neither Koenders nor Rutte recall having this conversation, although Rutte said he does not  “rule out” that it happened.

The letter revealed that CENTCOM had sent the Dutch Ministry of Defence their own additional investigation report on January 22nd 2016, in which they concluded that while the targeting process was done correctly, it was “probable” that civilians had died, while not apparently specifying numbers. Although CENTCOM officials stated that the investigation was now considered “closed”, an official final report never followed. On May 26th of that year, MoD finalised their own additional investigation, drawing the same conclusions.

Bijleveld asserts that “to this day, it is still uncertain how many civilian casualties there were in Hawijah”. However, in December 2018, a senior Coalition military official responded via email to questions by Dutch newspaper NRC, confirming that “the strike to the VBIED factory caused secondary explosions that unfortunately killed 70 civilians despite the precautions the Coalition took to mitigate civilian casualties”.

When Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) asked about this email in the debate on November 27th, minister BIjleveld answered that she had asked for a clarification by CENTCOM, who she claimed had said they were unsure why their spokesperson did not follow the ‘official conclusions’.

Prime minister Rutte continues to state that "until today, it is unknown how many civilians died", while CENTCOM officials confirmed in December 2018 in an email to Dutch media @NRC and @NOS that 70 civilians had died. pic.twitter.com/AA1M8OSZXz

— Airwars (@airwars) November 27, 2019

Future transparency

So far, Bijleveld has continually referred to the standing policy of not providing any information on ongoing Dutch military operations in light of ‘national, operational and personnel security’.This has led to Airwars for several years rating the Netherlands the least transparent and publicly accountable member of the 14-nation coalition against ISIS.

The minister still argues in her letter of November 25th that it is not possible to create a new standard, as assessments of the permissible level of transparency must be made based on the current security situation.

However Bijleveld does now promise a new standard for informing parliament, writing that MPs will confidentially be briefed about all Dutch weapon deployments. In cases where the defence ministry initiates investigation into civilian casualties, parliament will also be confidentially informed as soon as possible. Parliament will further be included in any considerations regarding the degree of public transparency that is considered “permissible in the context of security”.

The Minister writes that further inquiry into possible voluntary compensation for relatives of victims and the affected communities of Hawijah is taking place.

“While many questions remain unanswered on Hawijah, Airwars nevertheless welcomes recent indications by the Defence Ministry that it will improve the reporting of its military actions and any associated civilian harm,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “These announced structural policy changes have the potential to improve transparency for Dutch military actions moving forward, so that mass civilian casualty cases such as Hawijah can never again be hidden from the public.”

▲ Destruction at Hawijah following a Dutch airstrike on June 2nd/3rd 2015, published as propaganda by the Islamic State shortly after the incident (via VRT).

Published

November 11, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

More than 51,000 locally reported civilian deaths have been monitored by Airwars since 2014.

November 11th 2019 marks the fifth anniversary of Airwars – the international not for profit which monitors civilian harm on the battlefield, and seeks to reduce conflict casualty numbers.

November 11th is recognised globally, as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day and Veterans Day. It was also the date on which the name Airwars was registered by founders Chris Woods and Basile Simon in 2014, as part of a new approach to all-source local language monitoring of reported civilian harm in conflict countries.

Established originally to track the US-led war against so-called Islamic State in Iraq and then Syria, Airwars now monitors several dozen belligerents in six conflict-affected nations. At present the team is most focused on Turkish and Russian military actions in northern Syria; and on a bitter civil war in Libya which is increasingly drawing in foreign powers. More than 51,000 locally alleged civilian deaths have so far been tracked by the organisation – with tens of thousands more reports of injuries.

As well as monitoring local allegations of civilian harm, Airwars works where possible with militaries to help improve transparency and accountability – with the hope of reducing battlefield casualties. The organisation has been instrumental for example in securing the admission of more than 1,300 civilian deaths from Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria. Team members have additionally met with British, Dutch, Danish and NATO officials to seek transparency improvements. Airwars is also consulting with the Pentagon along with other NGOs, on a revised Department of Defense civilian casualty assessment process.

Airwars has also published many key investigations into civilian harm since its founding – working with news organisations including Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Le Monde, RTL Netherlands, and De Morgen. Investigations have revealed for example the existence of 80 officially admitted non-US civilian deaths which to this day, no nation will admit to. In summer 2019, Airwars also published a major study into US media reporting of civilian harm in war.

Headquartered at Goldsmiths, University of London in the UK, Airwars also has a European office in Utrecht in the Netherlands. The organisation is mainly funded by philanthropic donations – while declining support from governments participating in the conflicts it monitors.

Staff, contractors and volunteers are presently based on four continents. Maysa Ishmael is the most recent London-based staff member, focused both on UK advocacy, and on assessing civilian harm from military actions in Syria and Iraq. Maysa works alongside Mohammed al-Jumaily, another recent addition to the London team who monitors local claims of civilian harm in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The latest conflicts to be included in Airwars monitoring are US counter terror operations in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. More than 1,000 alleged drone strikes dating back to 2002 – which were originally tracked by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – are being transitioned to Airwars standards. Somalia will be the first of these conflicts to go online, later in 2019.

“November 11th is always a sombre occasion, when we remember both our civilian and military dead. So it’s fitting that this also marks the date on which Airwars was founded,” says director Chris Woods. “It’s my immense privilege to work with such an exceptional team of staff and volunteers around the world, bearing witness to civilian harm and seeking to reduce conflict casualty numbers.”

▲ An NHK-Japan documentary team recently filming with Airwars in London.

Published

October 22, 2019

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Airwars suspends cooperation with Netherlands defence ministry until possible role of Dutch F-16s in lethal event is clarified

On Friday October 18th, Dutch news organisations NRC and NOS published a story in which they accused the Dutch military of being responsible for a 2015 airstrike on an ISIS weapon storage facility in the city of Hawijah, Iraq, that led to the deaths of at least 70 civilians. The Dutch Ministry of Defence has so far refused to confirm or deny its involvement in one of the deadliest Coalition airstrikes in the war against ISIS.

Airwars has since announced the suspension of its ongoing engagement with defence ministry on transparency and accountability issues, until the Dutch government confirms or denies whether it was involved in the event.

On the night of June 2nd-3rd, 2015, aircraft belonging to the international Coalition against ISIS bombed an IED facility in the city of Hawijah, in Iraq’s Kirkuk province. Subsequent explosions from stored munitions killed at least 70 civilians, Coalition officials confirmed to NRC and NOS.

The Airwars assessment of the incident, based on local reporting and investigations by others, concluded that at least 26 children and 22 women were among those killed at Hawijah that day. Many victims were refugees from other parts of the country, who had found shelter in buildings surrounding the weapon storage facility. More than 100 civilians were also injured in the attack. According to local reports Airwars analysed, as many as 100 ISIS militants may also additionally have been killed.

Suspicion of Dutch involvement

Until now, no Coalition member has publicly claimed responsibility for an airstrike that Bas News described at the time as “one of the worst mass casualty incidents in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.” Journalists at the Dutch newspaper NRC and the public broadcasting foundation NOS investigated the incident for many months, as they suspected possible Dutch involvement following a letter sent by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence to the House of Representatives in April 2018.

In that letter, ministers revealed that the Dutch Public Prosecution Service had investigated four air strikes – out of a total of approximately 2,100 munitions released – that the Netherlands had carried out between October 2014 and June 2016. The Public Prosecution Service concluded that three out of the four investigated incidents indeed seemed to have led to civilian casualties. However any further information on these four strikes – such as place, date and time of the attack – was omitted. The Public Prosecution Service furthermore stated that while it was likely that these three Dutch strikes had killed civilians, it saw no reason to prosecute as in its view, the rules of war had been followed.

At the time, researchers and journalists noted that the first described case in the letter showed a potential resemblance to what had happened in Hawijah, three years earlier. The two ministers wrote about this first incident that “it […] was an attack by Dutch F-16s on a facility where so-called vehicle borne IEDs [car bombs] were manufactured. […] The IED factory later turned out to have contained many more explosives than was known or could be estimated in advance. It is very likely that this attack resulted in civilian casualties.” Requests for confirmation by Airwars and journalists on whether the ministry was indeed referring to the incident of Hawija have remained unanswered until now.

In a press conference the day after the Hawijah incident, American commander Lt General John Hesterman had also said that a “fairly small weapon” was used in the strike. According to NRC’s reconstruction of their investigation, weapon experts it consulted had concluded Hesterman must have been talking about GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs. In 2015, only two Coalition allies were using this type of munition in their military actions in Syria and Iraq: the United States and the Netherlands. However US and British armed drones were also using smaller 100lb Hellfire missiles at the time.

The aftermath of the alleged strike (via Iraqi Revolution)

The investigation

Both NRC and NOS visited the site of the airstrike in 2019, collecting on the ground statements from affected communities. They furthermore spoke to both US and Dutch officials. Kees Versteegh, one of the journalists working on the investigation, said in NRC’s daily podcast that several anonymous officials had confirmed to him that it was in fact a Dutch F16 that dropped the bomb.

Responding to the investigation, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld tweeted that she could  “neither confirm nor deny” Dutch responsibility for the Hawijah incident “at this moment”, but that she hoped to be able to do so in the near future. “We want to put the safety of everyone, especially the pilots, first”, Bijleveld stated, according to NRC. Prime Minister Mark Rutte was also questioned by journalists about the allegations, but answered that “while it is terrible when civilian casualties occur”, that he could not comment on the allegations.

Ik kijk momenteel serieus naar meer openheid over onze luchtaanvallen in relatie tot burgerslachtoffers. Hierin nemen wij voorstellen van de Kamer mee en uiteraard zal de Kamer hierover als eerste worden geïnformeerd. Ik kan betrokkenheid bij deze casus bevestigen noch ontkennen. https://t.co/qxn6ekWHDy

— Ank Bijleveld (@MinBijleveld) October 18, 2019

Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld says she can ‘neither confirm nor deny’ Dutch involvement in a deadly 2015 strike

Members of Parliament have been demanding that the Minister provides clarity on the topic, so far unsuccessfully. Sadet Karabulut, MP for the opposition Socialist Party (SP), who has submitted several motions regarding transparency on civilian casualties in the past, tweeted: “We weren’t told anything at all. Every time, we asked for [information]. We never got an answer. The minister has a problem if this is true and has a lot to explain. I want to know everything. All information should be on the table now very quickly, and we should have a debate.”

MP Isabelle Diks of GroenLinks stated that “it is unbelievable that the House of Representatives is only now hearing through the press, that in the event of a Dutch attack, so many civilian victims have fallen, while the House of Representatives has specifically asked about this on several occasions.” She said she expected an explanation from the Minister soon.

Ongelooflijk dat de Kamer nu pas via de pers hoort, dat bij een Nederlandse aanval zo onthutsend veel burgerslachtoffers zijn gevallen, terwijl de Kamer hier meermaals specifiek naar heeft gevraagd. @MinBijleveld heeft heel wat uit te leggen! Snel meer info in een brief dan debat

— Isabelle Diks (@IsabelleDiks) October 18, 2019

Joël Voordewind, MP for the ChristenUnie, also demanded answers on Twitter: “Why was there no follow-up investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office on the bombing in Hawija, hardly any compensation paid, and why was it not foreseen that a second explosion could occur, resulting in so many civilian casualties? I expect clear answers.”

And Salima Belhaj, MP for D66 which is a part of the government coalition, insisted that future civilian casualties must be communicated as fast as possible to parliament.

While the Dutch government has so far yet to officially confirm its involvement in the deadly attack, Defence Minister Bijleveld made a further statement on October 19th regarding compensation for relatives of the victims of the airstrike and those who suffered material loss. According to NOS, Bijleveld claimed that “it is the international agreement that it will be settled in the country itself [Iraq]”. This contradicts statements made by CENTCOM to Airwars in 2016 that each member nation of the alliance was individually responsible for any payouts for civilian harm resulting from its own actions.

Airwars and Airwars Stichting issued a statement noting that it would be a “national scandal if the defence ministry and successive governments have withheld the death of 70 civilians resulting from a Dutch military action more than 4 years ago”, and calling for an urgent factual statement from both the Ministry of Defence and the government. Airwars has additionally suspended planned further talks with defence officials on transparency and accountability for civilian harm, until the Dutch government has publicly clarified any involvement in this incident.

▲ Library image: A Dutch F-16 is prepared for a mission against ISIS (Image via Defensie)

Published

October 18, 2019

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Dozens of non combatants killed during latest Turkish attack on Kurdish regions of northern Syria.

Airwars monitors locally reported civilian harm from all Turkish air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria, as well as from Kurdish counterfire actions. Our database can be found here.

More than 120 civilian deaths have been locally alleged in eight days of fighting in northern Syria to October 16th, following a Turkish-led offensive, ‘Operation Peace Spring’, which began on October 9th.

In total Airwars researchers have tracked  between 102 and 126 reported civilian deaths resulting from air and artillery strikes by both sides. Between 71 and 85 fatalities were attributed to Turkish strikes by local sources in 64 incidents, while 31 to 41 non combatants were alleged killed by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) conducting counterfire strikes on Turkish and Syrian towns in 26 incidents.

Around 160,000 people have reportedly been displaced due to the fighting so far.

In the worst reported event to date, between 11 and 19 civilians were reported killed by a Turkish airstrike on a convoy heading from al-Jazira to Ras al-Ain. Four journalists were reportedly among those killed, and the strike supposedly injured up to 74 more people.

In addition, reports of executions of civilians have raised fears of more severe war crimes in the Kurdish-controlled parts of Northern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is the backbone, had controlled the territory after defeating ISIS, with the loss of more than 12,000 Kurdish fighters. Observers fear that the jihadi organisation could resurface should the SDF lose control over ISIS prisons due to the Turkish offensive.

Both pictures are from Serêkaniyê after Turkish airstrikes on the city #TwitterKurds pic.twitter.com/bmLUdEf5dS

— Cahîda Dêrsim (@dersi4m) October 9, 2019

Historical data heightens worries for civilians

Casualty data from the latest Turkish incursion is included in a major online Airwars database, which maps all reported civilian harm in Iraq and Syria from alleged Turkish strikes since 2015. As many as 1,650 civilian deaths have been locally alleged in more than 360 incidents.

According to the Airwars grading system, between 433 and 763 civilians had already likely fallen victim to air and artillery strikes across three countries during two previous waves of Turkish attacks on Kurdish-controlled territories from 2015 until October 8th 2019.

Hostilities between the Turks and Kurds flared up shortly after Turkey briefly became involved in the anti-ISIS Coalition led by the US in Iraq and Syria in 2015. Ankara used the opportunity of intervention against ISIS to also attack the Kurds – who make up a large part of the population in the north of both countries. With Kurdish forces gaining strength over the course of the war, fears were sparked in Ankara of an independent Kurdistan which might pose a threat to Turkey’s ambition as a major regional power.

Turkish strikes also heavily targeted ISIS, in particular during the Battle for Al Bab at the end of 2016. That city was almost entirely destroyed in the fighting and between 308 and 585 civilians reportedly killed by Turkish actions, according to Airwars data. In parallel, Turkey has occasionally targeted Kurdish forces in northern Iraq where it also maintains a permanent military presence. The number of civilians killed there has been comparatively low, with Airwars research indicating between 24 and 29 fatalities to date.

Fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces once again escalated during Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’ in early 2018. That campaign, launched on January 20th by the Turkish military in cooperation with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), targeted the canton of Afrin in northwest Syria near the Turkish border. The invasion targeted Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mostly made up of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The SDF until then had controlled the Afrin canton, a de facto autonomous region in the mountainous border area. Ankara considers the YPG to be the Syrian arm of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) which it deems a terrorist organisation.

Frontlines during the 2018 Afrin campaign (via Wikimedia)

With Turkish and FSA forces progressing quickly through Afrin, the alliance took full control of the canton on March 24th 2018 after eight weeks of fighting. The operation drew heavy criticism at the time from various governments, which insisted that Turkey’s security concerns did not justify an invasion of neighbouring territory. Following the capture of the regional capital of Afrin city by Turkish forces, the SDF began an insurgency.

Over the past 18 months, Turkish military action had mostly involved sporadic clashes in Afrin and occasional airstrikes in the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq, allegedly causing occasional civilian casualties. After the Kurds invited Syrian regime troops into parts of their remaining territory, a Turkish invasion had appeared less likely, given that Ankara does not want a confrontation with the two battle-hardened forces. US and Russian forces had also acted as buffers.

Instead the Turkish military increasingly made use of targeted killings to impair the Kurds, some of which were conducted by the newly designed Bayraktar TB2 drone that is also being heavily used in Libya.

This standoff between the two foes came to an end following President Donald Trump’s abrupt recent decision to abandon the Kurds and withdraw US troops from Syria This led directly to the latest Turkish offensive – which has the stated goal of creating a buffer zone between the two countries.

We defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate and no longer have any troops in the area under attack by Turkey, in Syria. We did our job perfectly! Now Turkey is attacking the Kurds, who have been fighting each other for 200 years….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2019

Third escalation

In response to the Turkish invasion, Kurdish forces struck a Russian-brokered deal with the Assad regime to help protect their Syrian territory – where they have enjoyed de-facto autonomy for several years. That agreement has raised fears of an open confrontation between Damascus and Ankara at their border. However, the Russian government seems intent on avoiding that scenario so far.

However, a Kurdish withdrawal as in Afrin seems unlikely on this occasion. Greater involvement by the Assad regime and Russia, both accused of deliberately targeting civilian neighbourhoods and institutions throughout the Syrian civil war, could mean new horrors for local populations.

In the most recent development, US Vice President Pence struck a reported ceasefire deal with Turkish President Erdogan on October 17th. That agreement pauses fighting for 120 hours – during which the Kurds are required to withdraw from a 32 km ‘safe zone’ between the two countries. With the Kurds rejecting any occupation by Turkey – while Syrian regime and Russian troops flow into the area – it is presently unclear how likely any such deal is to hold.

US and Turkey reach an agreement to suspend military operation in Syria against the Kurds.-YPG leaving heavy weapons and withdraw its troops from the "safe zone",444km wide,32km deep.-Turkish side will pause 120 hours to allow Kurdish fighters to withdraw from the safe-zone. pic.twitter.com/eVnhZPtuC0

— Military Advisor (@miladvisor) October 17, 2019

▲ Destruction after alleged Turkish shelling on Ayn Diwar on October 11 (via ANF)

Published

September 25, 2019

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Civilian casualties are sharply up - with UAE and Turkey often to blame, say experts

Foreign powers are increasingly being drawn into Libya’s civil war – with lethal air strikes reportedly carried out by at least two other nations, and with Libya’s two rival governments both hiring foreign mercenary pilots, and receiving shipments of weapons from abroad. Experts are warning that an internationalising of the conflict may further destabilize the already-fragmented North African nation.

Two nations in particular are now involved in a proxy war – with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates each targeting the other’s air assets in a battle for control of Libya’s skies.

Until fairly recently, the Libyan city of Misurata had been off limits despite armed clashes between the two rival governments for control of the nation’s capital – and likely the whole country. Even though the western coastal city of Misurata is supporting the Tripoli-based and UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) with ground troops and air power, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) had refrained from attacking it. The powerful Misuratans could potentially tip the military scales against him by getting more involved, and Haftar reportedly wanted to keep a door open for negotiations.

But on July 26th, everything changed. The GNA dealt a heavy blow to Haftar’s forces that day by targeting its Jufra airbase, reportedly destroying two large cargo planes and killing a Ukrainian mercenary pilot. It is not clear whether that strike was conducted by Misuratan planes, or by Turkish armed drones.

The LNA retaliated the next day by hitting the alleged control room for Turkish armed Bayraktar TB2 drones in Misurata. Either the LNA itself or allied Emirati drones struck the city’s Air College, highlighting the increasing internationalisation of this bitter civil war.

Destroyed aircraft at Jufra airbase following a GNA airstrike on July 26th (via European Space Imaging)

Blame game

Both the LNA and GNA now openly blame foreign forces for major attacks. The catastrophic airstrike on a migrant detention on July 3rd which killed at least 53 civilians was the work of a United Arab Emirates (UAE) aircraft, insisted the GNA. The Emirates was also blamed by some for an August 4th-5th strike on the city of Murzuq in which at least 42 civilians died.

France too has been implicated in the violence, with Javelin anti-tank missiles, originally obtained by the French military, finding their way into the hands of the rebel LNA. Italy’s foreign minister openly condemned Paris for, in his words, choosing to side against the UN-supported Government of National Accord.

Haftar’s forces have in turn captured Turkish citizens, and threatened to attack Turkish targets following a spate of precision strikes, reportedly by Turkish drones. Turkey, has a robust domestic armed drone programme, and its Bayraktar TB2 drones appear to have been deployed to Libya in some numbers. Despite their limited munitions payload (45kg) and range (requiring nearby ground control centres) the Bayraktars initially had some effect on Haftar’s forces. However, increasingly the TB2s are being hunted down and destroyed – almost certainly by the UAE’s own more powerful Wing Loong armed drones.

The control room for Turkey’s TB2s had reportedly been moved several times after the previous one at Mitiga airport in Tripoli was destroyed by continuous airstrikes, according to defence and security analyst Arnaud Delalande.

“Turkey initially delivered four drones to the GNA, though three were destroyed in an LNA strike,“ he says, citing as his source Misurata Air Academy airmen. “Another five drones were ordered then, and following two more deliveries currently between six and eight are operational.”

After heavy hits to the Misurata airbase there were said to be plans to move the Turkish drones either to Zuwara in Libya’s far east, or to Ghardabiya airbase south of Sirte. With its drones re-stationed, the GNA would have the capability of striking targets deeper into Libya’s Haftar-occupied east, including the Oil Crescent. Delalande says that the LNA has preemptively been striking Zuwara and Ghardabiya to prevent any military use. By doing so, Haftar’s forces have again widened the fronts of the ongoing civil war as they struck those forces around Sirte who ousted ISIS from the city in 2016. Fighting jihadists used to be a goal that GNA and LNA were once committed to before their hostilities began.

Most of the TB2s were later destroyed, likely while landing after conducting missions. Six more drones were delivered at the end of August to the GNA, according to a source. But these too are at risk. Haftar’s forces claim to have destroyed or disabled 14 Turkish drones to date, according to an official with an international monitoring agency who asked not to be named for this report.

A GNA government source disclosed to Airwars that these drones are now constantly being moved in vehicles for the moment, instead of being housed at an airport. The Tripoli-based Rada Special Deterrence Force is they said helping Turkish personnel operate them, while Libyan militiamen are being trained in Misurata to fly drones. By doing so, the Turks and their allies are mimicking a Cold War strategy whereby the US and Soviets kept small arsenals of nuclear weapons on the move in case their ground bases were disabled.

Responding to a request for comment, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that it had “no information” on drone strikes or weapon deliveries to Libya, though said it “continues to support the GNA.”

five new aircraft shelters were set up at Misrata airport in June 2019 https://t.co/cEQfUdVtYy wide enough to house a Bayraktar UAV pic.twitter.com/HsgL9MFqv3

— Samir (@obretix) July 29, 2019

Emirati assets

While the GNA relies heavily on Turkish support, Haftar’s forces are increasingly dependent on Chinese-made armed Wing Loong drones being operated by the UAE.

“Only 30% of the LNA air fleet are operational and need to be overhauled,” explains Delalande. The emergency landing on July 22nd of an armed LNA L-39 in Tunisia, normally used as a trainer aircraft, highlighted a reliance upon inferior aircraft. An official with an international agency, who asked not to be named, claimed that manned aircraft strikes in Libya had now virtually ended – making this one of the world’s first drone versus drone conflicts. However reports persist elsewhere of some ongoing strikes by manned aircraft, most likely those of a foreign power.

Since Jun, recurring testimonies have pointed to foreign fighter jets carrying out strikes in W #Libya

That is v plausible.

Some investigative journalism would be worthwhile here

Eg, Possibility that above are #Emirati Mirage 2000-5s taking off from W #Egypt should be examined https://t.co/iVrI8xpZTk

— Jalel Harchaoui (@JMJalel_H) September 21, 2019

Despite some gains on the ground for the GNA, the situation looks bleak in the air for the UN-backed government and its ally Turkey. The Chinese Wing Loong II used by the Emiratis is superior in terms of range and capacity to the Bayraktar TB2. “The Bayraktar drones are limited to 150km which can be extended with relay units, while the Wing Loongs can strike anywhere in Libya,” a technical assessor with an international agency disclosed to Airwars. “The Wing Loong can also carry more than eight times the weight of the Bayraktar with 400kg of missiles compared to 45kg,” the source adds. Local reports of heavy bombing over the past week by LNA and Emirati planes seem to confirm their air superiority.

Without the Emirati aircraft, believed to be based at Al Khadim in eastern Libya, the LNA would not be capable of conducting night-time strikes such as the one on July 3rd in Tajoura which hit a migrant detention centre, killing at least 53 civilians, alleges Oded Berkowitz, an analyst at MAX-Security.

That incident marked the biggest civilian harm event harm in Libya since 2011. Most sources accused the LNA of conducting the strike, though with the GNA itself insisting it had been conducted by an Emirati F-16. This seems unlikely, with no other claims of UAE F-16s being used in Libya. The UAE Foreign Ministry did not respond to an Airwars request for information on Emirati involvement in Libya.

In another major incident, at least 42 civilians were reportedly killed at Murzuq when an airstrike hit a town hall meeting in early August. Again, local sources accused the LNA and the UAE of conducting the strike. Murzuq, in the far south of the country, is another frontline for Haftar’s forces which are engaged in fighting with local tribesmen from the Tebu minority. At least 90 civilians have been killed in those clashes so far, according to OCHA.

In a later development, the US itself declared an airstrike near Murzuq on September 19th, claiming it killed eight ISIS members. That marked the first officially declared US strike in Libya since November 2018. Another US strike was then conducted five days later, again near Murzuq, supposedly killing eleven terrorists.

Jordan, Russia and France also involved

In addition to the United Arab Emirates, the LNA receives backing from several other foreign powers. Egypt has reportedly scaled back its own support, with no strikes publicly reported so far, though it is said to be training pilots. Jordan, however, is increasing its involvement by training LNA officers, and supplying armoured vehicles to Haftar’s ground forces – which have been widely pictured operating in Libya.

Jordanian Al-Mared personnel carriers recently photographed in Libya (via Defence Web)

Saudi Arabia and Russia presently take minor roles through offers of financial aid, or by delivering spare parts. However, there remains a risk of greater Russian involvement, as happened with Syria in 2015. A US State Department official, speaking on terms of anonymity, claimed to Airwars that Russia has previously carried out at least one demonstration airstrike in Libya for the LNA, which was launched from an Egyptian airbase near Siwa. There were also recent claims of Russian mercenaries with Wagner now assisting the LNA on the ground.

France’s part in the conflict remains ambivalent. Officially, the GNA is supported by the United Nations – with France itself a permanent member of the UN Security Council. However there have been reports for some years of French forces supporting the rebel LNA in its fight against jihadists – with three French Special Forces soldiers killed in 2016 near Benghazi, for example.

US-made Javelin missiles were also found by GNA forces after they captured the strategically important mountain city of Gheryan from the LNA at the end of June 2019. A New York Times investigation found the missiles had originally been delivered to France, which admitted to being the owner but denied they were operational: “Damaged and out of use, these weapons were being temporarily stocked in a warehouse ahead of their destruction,” the French Ministry of Defence insisted. “They were not transferred to local forces.”

“The French explanation is insufficient, it doesn’t make sense for them to be in Gheryan for so long as there was no fighting for years,” Oded Berkowitz says. “It is more likely that there were French soldiers and the missiles somehow ended up in Gheryan.”

All such weapon deliveries not only constitute blatant violations of the UN arms embargo to Libya, but also appear to fuel the conflict. July witnessed by far the highest death toll since the beginning of the LNA’s advance on Tripoli in April. Between 75 and 114 civilians were reportedly killed, with 142 air and artillery strikes monitored. August has seen another 62 to 71 locally reported civilian deaths.

Destruction after an alleged LNA airstrike on Ain Zara near Tripoli on August 17 (via Hona Souq Al-Khmies)

Civilians at risk

The targeting of civilian infrastructure such as the Tajoura detention centre and hospitals raise concerns that an all-out war could be near. Recent military advances by the GNA have been pushed back; the war has now spread far beyond Tripoli; and yet there seems to be no solution to a military stalemate where neither side is actually capable of controlling the entire country, let alone Tripoli.

Following a brief ceasefire around the Eid al-Adha holidays on August 10th-12th, fighting resumed at its previous intensity, and Haftar recently vowed to press on with his offensive. However his LNA seems to be facing internal tensions in its stronghold of Benghazi, with infighting reported between secularist and Islamist forces in Haftar’s self-styled army.

Precisely what role foreign powers will play in the weeks ahead is unclear. Both Turkey, financially invested in Libya, and the UAE – obsessed with containing the Muslim Brotherhood with its reported ties to both Turkey and Qatar – certainly have the capabilities to step up their involvement and turn Libya into a full-fledged proxy war. Foreign sponsors backing out could also mean victory for one side – or a return to the negotiation table for both. Germany currently aims to sponsor a conference on Libya, potentially involving foreign belligerents, by the end of the year.

“More than ever, Libyans are now fighting the wars of other countries who appear content to fight to the last Libyan and to see the country entirely destroyed.”

This line from UN envoy Salame to the Security Council struck a chord, it’s been popping up across Libyan social media

— Mary Fitzgerald (@MaryFitzger) July 31, 2019

“One can make a strong, compelling case that the current situation in Tripolitania [western Libya] wouldn’t have existed at all if foreign states had refrained from interfering in Libya so doggedly throughout the recent year,” says Jalel Harchaoui, Libya scholar at the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute. “For instance, the Haftar coalition’s offensive on Tripoli has been struggling. It has been mediocre and it is impossible to call it successful by any stretch of the imagination,” he adds.

However, “the field marshal’s certainty that he can rely upon backing from the UAE and others, in contravention of the UN’s arms embargo, has disincentivized him from pursuing any path but a military solution. He hopes for even greater backing than whatever he has been receiving thus far,” Harchaoui claims.

According to Airwars data, the conflict has already taken the lives of between 210 and 297 civilians through air and artillery strikes since April 4th. OCHA says that overall 1,093 people have been killed, including fighters on both sides. Predictions on where the troubled nation is heading remain difficult at present due to the erratic nature of many of the actors involved. As Harchaoui says, “in general, the Libya conflict stands at a place of very profound uncertainty. Several scenarios are equally plausible from here. Most of them involve thousands of additional deaths.”

The violence in #Tripoli has killed 1093 people, including 106 civilians, and injured 5752 people, including 294 civilians. More than 100 000 people are displaced.

WHO is training #Libya's doctors to serve both the physical and mental health needs of the injured and displaced.

— World Health Organization in Libya (@WHOLIBYA) July 15, 2019

▲ Aftermath of the devastating airstrike on the Tajoura Detention Centre on July 3rd (via IOM Libya)