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US air strike on Libya killed abducted Serbs – Belgrade to send protest note to Washington

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic

BELGRADE: A US air strike believed to have killed an Islamic State group operative behind the mass murder of tourists on a Tunisian beach also killed two kidnapped Serbian embassy employees, Belgrade said yesterday. The attack on Friday targeted a jihadist training camp near the Libyan coastal city of Sabratha, killing dozens of people. But Belgrade said the victims of the strike also included two employees from its embassy in Libya, who were taken hostage on November 8 in Sabratha from a convoy of cars heading to the Tunisian border.

US officials said the raid likely killed Noureddine Chouchane, also known as “Sabir,” who along with other jihadists had been planning attacks against American and other Western interests. Chouchane is suspected of being behind both the beach attack in July 2015 near the Tunisian city of Sousse that killed 38 tourists, including 30 Britons and an attack on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis that killed 21 tourists and a policeman in March 2015. Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group.

“It has just been officially confirmed that two Serbian citizens who were foreign ministry employees, Sladjana Stankovic and Jovica Stepic, were killed,” Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told reporters. “They were killed by explosions, obviously we are talking about American bombs,” he said, expressing “deepest condolences” to the families. “This is the first big hostage crisis that our state has been faced with. Our people would have been released had they not been killed,” insisted Vucic.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said Serbian authorities had been negotiating the release of the two staff and “the kidnappers had a financial interest”. But he said the demands had been “impossible” to meet by either the families or the government. He said Serbia would send a protest note to Washington for not informing Serbian authorities of the raid.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said they were still assessing the results of the strike and would “make further statements if and when appropriate”. “We are aware of the reports, but, at this time, have no indications that confirm this reporting,” she said, referring to Belgrade’s announcement. Vucic said the bodies of Stankovic, the embassy’s communications chief, and her driver Stepic were expected to be repatriated tomorrow. Sabratha, which lies 70 km west of Tripoli, is considered a stronghold of extremism in lawless Libya, where militants are trained in jihadist camps before launching deadly attacks in other countries.

The country spiralled into chaos after longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted and killed in Oct 2011, with two governments vying for power and armed groups battling to control vast energy resources. Belgrade maintains an embassy in Tripoli, and Serbian citizens – mostly doctors, other medical staff and construction workers – have been working in Libya for decades due to close bilateral relations during Gaddafi’s regime.

IS Training in Libya

The Pentagon estimates that around 5,000 IS fighters are in Libya, and Friday’s strike was the second US air raid in the past three months targeting the fast-expanding group in the North African country. A statement from the Tripoli-based general prosecutor said that one of those wounded in the US strike had confirmed that he and the others killed in the raid were IS members. The wounded man said they “came to Libya to train and then carry out terrorist attacks in Tunis”, the prosecutor’s statement said.

The Sabratha Municipal Council confirmed the deaths of the Serbian hostages and called on Tunisian and Libyan authorities to “take responsibility and help in fighting these terrorist organizations”. Vucic said Washington was probably unaware that the Serbian hostages were held at the bombed location, “but it will remain unknown”. He said relations with the United States were “historically not easy”, referring to the 11-week bombing campaign by NATO against Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo war. “I am not ready… to strain and worsen relations with the United States because we need them as a friend and partner, not as an enemy,” he added. – AFP

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