U.S. warplanes carried out air strikes against Islamic State-linked militants in western Libya on Friday, killing as many as 43 people in an operation targeting a suspect linked to two deadly attacks last year in neighbouring Tunisia.
There are unconfirmed reports that one of the targets was an IS leader, Tunisian Noureddine Chouchane.
It was the second U.S. air strike in three months against IS in Libya, where the hardline Islamist militants have exploited years of chaos following Muammar Gaddafi’s 2011 overthrow to build up a presence on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
The mayor of the Libyan city of Sabratha, Hussein al-Thwadi, said the planes struck at 3:30 a.m. (0130 GMT), hitting a building in the city’s Qasr Talil district where foreign workers were living.
Some of the occupants had only recently arrived in the town.
He said 43 people had been killed and six wounded. The death toll could not immediately be confirmed with other officials.
According to Libya Herald, Ansar Al-Sharia, the Salafist Islamist militia group that advocates the implementation of strict Sharia law across Libya, has long maintained a camp outside Sabratha which has become an IS transit camp for recruits arriving from Tunisia and also a training ground.
The three Tunisians responsible for the Bardo and Sousse terror attacks on tourists in 2015 are all said to have received training in the Sabratha camp.
The March 18 attack by IS on the Bardo Museum in Tunis killed 24 people, many of them foreign tourists. On June 26, IS attacked a resort hotel near the Tunisian city of Sousse killing 38 people.
Terrorists from the camp were allegedly responsible for the January 2014 murder of a British oil worker and a New Zealand friend on a Sabratha beach.
Earlier, Sabrathans denied the presence of such camps run by extremists. But they have become more vocal after the militants began to influence the locals and threaten to blow up priceless Roman ruins that are the coastal town’s major tourist attraction.
Thawadi declared a state of emergency in the town after the Sabratha Security headquarters were bombed last December.
President Barack Obama last week directed his national security team to bolster counter-terrorism efforts in Libya while also pursuing diplomatic possibilities for solving its political crisis and forming a government of national unity. While IS has emerged in other places, including Afghanistan, Libya is seen as its key focus outside of Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. military has been closely monitoring IS movements in Libya, and small teams of U.S. military personnel have moved in and out of the country over a period of months.
British, French and Italian special forces also have been in Libya helping with aerial surveillance, mapping and intelligence gathering in several cities, including Benghazi in the east and Zintan in the west, according to two Libyan military officials who are coordinating with them.
U.S. officials predicted early this month that it would be weeks or longer before U.S. special forces would be sent, citing the need for more consultations with European allies. Additional intelligence would help refine targets for any sort of military strikes, but surveillance drones are in high demand elsewhere, including in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Adding to the concern in Washington and Europe is evidence that the number of IS fighters in Libya is increasing — now believed to be up from about 2,000 to 5,000 — even as the group’s numbers in Syria and Iraq are shrinking under more unrelenting U.S., coalition, and Russian airstrikes.