Serbia says two members of its embassy staff who were abducted in Libya in November are believed to have been among at least 49 killed in US air strikes on a suspected training camp of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
US officials said the site targeted in Friday’s strikes in Sabratha, a coastal city in western Libya, was a camp used by up to 60 fighters, including Tunisian Noureddine Chouchane, blamed for two attacks on tourists in Tunisia last year in which dozens were killed.
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Sladjana Stankovic, a Serbian communications officer, and Jovica Stepic, a driver, were taken hostage on November 8 after their diplomatic convoy, including the ambassador, came under fire near Sabratha.
“Unfortunately as a consequence of this attack on the Islamic State in Libya, the two of them lost their lives,” Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s foreign minister, said, referring to Friday’s air strike.
He said they had received information from several sources, including other intelligence services, of the deaths of Stankovic and Stepic.
The information was yet to be officially confirmed by Libyan authorities.
Dacic offered “sincere condolences to the families of the victims”, saying they had been informed of the news and that the repatriation of bodies would be organised in the coming days.
Hussein al-Thwadi, the mayor of Sabratha, said Libyan authorities had sent photos of the bodies to Serbian diplomats for an initial identification.
He said the death toll from Friday’s strikes had risen to 49.
It was the second US air raid in three months against ISIL in Libya, where the fighters have exploited chaos following Muammar Gaddafi’s 2011 downfall to build up a presence on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
Libya’s attorney general said on Saturday that one of six wounded survivors told prosecutors that those in the building that was hit were “members of ISIL who came to Libya recently for training and then to carry out terrorist acts in Tunisia”.
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But Thwadi said the building was “just a house”, adding: “The house was used for meetings and other acts but not training.”
Dacic said Serbian authorities had been negotiating the release of the two staff before the attack.
“The kidnappers had a financial interest,” he said, adding that demands had been “impossible” to meet by either the families or the government.
He said Serbia would send a protest note to Washington DC for not informing Serbian authorities of the raid.
US officials have said they gave advance warning of the strikes to Libyan authorities, without specifying who they contacted.
Since 2014 Libya has had two competing governments, one based in Tripoli and the other, which has received international recognition, in the east.
Serbia has ties with both of Libya’s governments.
Both sides are supported by loose alliances of former rebels and armed brigades.
A unity government has been nominated under a UN-backed plan, but has yet to win approval or move to Libya.
Western powers and the UN have, in the meantime, been trying to reach out to armed factions to provide security for the unity government and tackle the threat from ISIL.
The group took control of Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte last year, and has carried out attacks in several other towns and cities.
Diplomats and foreign nationals have been targeted in the past for kidnappings, mostly for ransom or to demand the release of fighters being held by overseas governments.
Armed groups have also targeted foreigners.