As Libyan Chaos Deepens, US and Europeans Condemn Airstrikes Against Islamists

By Patrick Goodenough | August 25, 2014 | 8:37pm EDT

In this image made from AP video on Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, plumes of smoke and debris rise from a base of Islamic militias after a fighter jet's strike in Benghazi, Libya. (AP Photo/AP video)

( – The U.S. joined four European partners on Monday condemning the escalation of violence in Libya, where Islamists seized control of Tripoli’s airport at the weekend, but also criticized airstrikes against those same Islamists, although without identifying the source of the air attacks.

While forces led by a renegade Libyan general fighting the Islamists, Khalifa Hifter, claimed responsibility for the airstrikes, U.S. officials pointed a finger at Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

U.S. officials told the New York Times that the Obama administration had been surprised by the strikes by Egypt and the UAE, which had not coordinated their action with Washington.

Egypt in particular has expressed deep concern about its neighbor’s collapse into near-anarchy, but the foreign ministry in Cairo denied involvement in the airstrikes; there was no comment from the UAE government.

The airstrikes by unidentified warplanes targeted Islamist positions in Tripoli shortly before the airport was captured, and reportedly again afterwards, evidently failing to prevent the Islamist advance.

Although the statement by the five Western governments did not identify those responsible for the airstrikes, it did refer to “outside interference.”

“The governments of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States strongly condemn the escalation of fighting and violence in and around Tripoli, Benghazi, and across Libya, especially against residential areas, public facilities, and critical infrastructure, by both land attacks and air strikes,” the joint statement read.

It called on Libyan parties and politicians to “accept an immediate ceasefire and engage constructively in the democratic process, abstaining from confrontational initiatives that risk undermining it.”

“We believe outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition.”

At a press briefing Monday State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki recited that last line about outside interference, but also said that she was “not in a position to provide any additional information on these [air]strikes.”

“Libya’s challenges are political and violence will not resolve them,” Psaki said.

Pressed on the issue, she would say only that the U.S. has “close working relationships” with Egypt and the UAE.

Asked later in the briefing whether there would be any difference between the UAE bombing Islamist militants in Libya and the U.S. doing the same to Taliban forces in Afghanistan, Psaki said, “Every circumstance is different.”

Russia: NATO to blame

As two rival parliaments – one Islamist-leaning, one anti-Islamist – met Monday in locations almost 800 miles apart, Russia poured scorn on the West, saying its intervention to topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 was to blame for the chaos now besetting the country.

“We are convinced that the current chaos in Libya is a direct consequence of irresponsible interference by the U.S. and its NATO allies into Libya’s internal political conflict, with an aim to overthrow the Muammar Gaddafi regime and forcefully democratize the country,” the foreign ministry said.

“At present, the Libyans are paying for this, with thousands of lives lost and social infrastructure destroyed in the violent internal struggle,” it said. “We can now say for sure that the political process of creating a modern democratic state on the rubble of the Gaddafi regime, overthrown in 2011, is now completely deadlocked.”

Noting the existence of dueling administrations and parliaments – the reconvened General National Congress in Tripoli and the House of Representatives, which was elected in June, in the eastern city of Tobruk – the Russian statement said none appeared capable of establishing control over the country.

“The future of the country will depend on the outcome of the armed confrontation between different territorial and tribal groups which are fighting for political power, and natural and financial resources, and some of which publicly support extremist Islamist ideas,” the ministry said.

The Islamist group that seized control of the airport after weeks of fighting against rival militias calls itself Fajr (“Dawn”). Another radical Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia, has its stronghold in Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi.

Ansar al-Shariah, which has ties to al-Qaeda, is suspected of having played a key role in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which cost the lives of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.

Ansar al-Shariah posted a message online on Monday urging the Fajr Islamists to unite with Ansar so that the “mujahedeen” could together foil “any Western plan” for Libya, Agence France Press reported.

“Proclaim that your struggle is for shari’a and not democratic legitimacy, so the world unites under the same banner to bolster the forces of good against the forces of evil,” the message said.

AFP also reported that Libya’s newly-named army chief, Abdul Razzak Nadhuri, said on Monday he was declaring “war” on terrorists.

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