Sunday 18 March 2018

Beheadings spark call for new offensive against jihadists

Relatives of Egyptian Coptic men killed in Libya mourn at their house in El-Our village, in Minya governorate, south of Cairo
Relatives of Egyptian Coptic men killed in Libya mourn at their house in El-Our village, in Minya governorate, south of Cairo
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Louisa Loveluck

Western leaders called for urgent action to defeat the "monstrosity" of Isil in Libya yesterday, as Egypt launched air strikes in retribution for the group's mass killing of 21 Christian migrant workers.

The beheading of the Coptic Christians prompted Egypt's first official foreign military operation for decades, as the country's air force launched dawn bombing raids on targets linked to the jihadists' Libyan affiliate.

The murders on the shores of Libya's Mediterranean coast had been shown in a video released by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) on Sunday night. After directing the murders for the camera, one of the extremists pointed a bloodstained finger northward and said: "We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission."

British Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the "barbaric" executions and promised to defeat the "monstrosity" of Islamist extremism.

Francois Hollande, the French president, and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, his Egyptian counterpart, called for the United Nations Security Council to meet over Libya and to take new measures.

Three years after the fall of Muammar Ghaddffi, the Libyan dictator, UN-brokered peace talks are seen as a last hope for a country spiralling out of control. It has two rival parliaments, each nominally allied to a patchwork of militias, and a power vacuum in which extremist groups, including Isil, are taking root.

The 21 victims of Isil's latest atrocity were all migrant workers who hailed from an impoverished region in central Egypt. They had travelled to Libya hoping to make a new life - day labourers in the oil-rich nation can command wages of up to six times more than they could make at home.

The Egyptians, all kidnapped from the Libyan city of Sirte in recent months, are the first foreigners killed by Isil outside territory that the group currently controls in Syria and Iraq, in what appeared to be the clearest sign yet of the extremists' growing reach.

Isil called the video depicting the murders "a message signed with blood to the nation of the cross".

Yesterday morning, the dusty back streets of one Egyptian village, Al Our, were filled with the sounds of grief. It had been home to 14 of the hostages.

Egypt responded to the murders with its first official foreign military operation for two decades, mounting bombing raids against what it described as Isil-linked targets in Libya's coastal city of Derna.

Saqr al-Joroushi, the Libyan air force commander, told Egyptian state television that about 50 extremists were killed in the air strikes, which were coordinated with the military of Libya's internationally recognised government. He said his air force had also attacked sites in Sirte and Bin Jawad.

In a statement, Egypt's army said it had targeted "weapons caches and training camps". The claims could not be independently verified.


The army said the bombing raids were "to avenge the bloodshed and to seek retribution from the killers", adding: "Let those far and near know that Egyptians have a shield that protects them." Egypt has previously provided clandestine support to forces allied to Libya's internationally recognised government, which fled the capital for the eastern cities of Bayda and Tobruk last year.

But although Mr Sisi's administration had set up a "crisis cell" to respond to the kidnappings, the hostages' families said that they had been left in the dark over what it was actually doing.

Last night, Libyan media reported that 35 more Egyptians had been kidnapped from areas controlled by Isil or the rival extremist group Ansar al Sharia.

The unconfirmed reports claimed that dozens of Egyptian farm labourers had been seized in revenge for the air raids. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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