Libya’s United Nations-backed government said an airstrike ordered by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar struck a detention center for undocumented migrants in the suburbs of Tripoli, killing 40 people.

The Interior Ministry said 35 migrants were also wounded in the early Wednesday attack, describing it as a “war crime” in a statement posted on Facebook. The center in Tajoura is mainly used to detain Africans believed to be attempting to travel to Europe.

The raid followed a warning by Haftar’s forces that they would launch airstrikes on Tripoli targets after losing the strategic city of Gharyan to the government. That loss had dealt a blow to his months-long campaign to seize the capital and take control of the war-torn North African nation.

While there was no immediate independent confirmation of who carried out the attack, the nature of the target and the death toll will likely increase international pressure on Haftar and his backers to return to the UN-sponsored peace process to end the conflict in the OPEC member.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army denied it was behind the airstrike, and holds the Tripoli-based government responsible, the pan-Arab TV channel Al-Hadath reported, without giving further details.

Libya is divided between two rival governments and militias vying to control a country that holds Africa’s largest proven oil reserves. The conflict is rapidly turning into the latest proxy war in the Middle East, pitting rivals Egypt and the United Arab Emirates against Turkey.

The U.A.E., which supports Haftar, denied that it “owned” U.S.-made missiles found in Gharyan. In a statement late Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said it was committed to the UN arms embargo on Libya and called on the country’s warring parties to ease tensions.

The statement came shortly after the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned Secretary of State Michael Pompeo that if the U.A.E. had violated an arms sales agreement with the U.S., the Trump administration would be required to terminate all weapons sales to its Gulf Arab ally.

“I understand that the State Department may have begun an investigation; if not, I demand that a full investigation be done immediately,” New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez wrote in the letter, posted on his website.


(With assistance from Zaid Sabah, Samer Khalil Al-Atrush and Tarek El-Tablawy.)


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