A spokesman for east Libyan armed forces said on Friday that as many as 141 people had been killed a day earlier in an attack on a southern air base, and the head of Libya’s United Nations-backed government suspended his defence minister pending an investigation into the incident.
The attack at Brak Al Shati air base shattered a truce in the area, which in recent months had become a flashpoint between military alliances based in eastern and western Libya. It risks a major escalation in a stop-start conflict between eastern-based factions and rivals loosely aligned with current and former governments in the capital, Tripoli.
Ahmed Al Mismari, a spokesman for the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), said 103 of those killed in the attack at the air base were LNA troops, most of them from the 12th Brigade stationed there.
They were attacked by a brigade from the western city of Misrata known as the Third Force, which previously controlled the base and is nominally aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Earlier on Friday, the mayor of Brak Al Shati and a medical source in the town put the death toll at 89, though the medical official said some bodies had not been brought to the hospital. Mismari said some of the bodies were only collected on Friday.
It was not possible to independently verify the number of casualties. Local officials have said some of those killed were civilians who appeared to have been summarily executed. Mohamed Gliwan, a spokesman for the Third Force, told that LNA troops who were killed inside the base were armed.
Human Rights Watch cited a medical official, an eyewitness to say that attacking forces had killed “scores of LNA fighters, some with bullets to the head, in apparent acts of summary execution.” UN Libya envoy Martin Kobler called the attack unprovoked.