By Ayman Al-Warfalli
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Egyptian jets carried out air strikes on the Libyan city of Derna on Monday, continuing days of attacks against Islamist militants Egypt says were responsible for ambushing and killing Egyptian Christians last week, Libyan commanders said.
Egypt’s air force began the attacks just hours after masked men boarded vehicles driving dozens of people to a monastery in the southern Egyptian province of Minya and opened fire at close range, killing 29 and wounding 24.
A witness said on Monday one attack hit the western entrance to Derna and two others hit Dahr al-Hamar in the city’s south.
“The air strikes are joint ones between the Libyan National Army and Egyptian army,” Ahmad Messmari, a spokesman for Libyan National Army, an eastern Libyan faction allied with Egypt.
An Egyptian military spokesman declined to comment. But Libyan operational commander Brigadier Abdulsalam Al-Hasi told Reuters the strikes targeted Majlis Mujahideen Derna and Abu Salim brigade, two local Libyan groups allied with al Qaeda.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Egypt had targeted militant bases in Libya “to get rid of them and to limit their ability to threaten Egypt’s national security”.
Speaking at a news conference in Cairo with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Shoukry said Egypt looked forward to “Russia utilising all of its available capabilities to work together to get rid of terrorism”.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for last week’s attack in Egypt, the latest targeting the Christian minority there. Two church bombings also claimed by Islamic State killed more than 45 people last month.
According to Yasser Risk, chairman of state newspaper Akhbar Elyoum and a former war correspondent with close ties to Egypt’s presidency, 15 targets were hit on the first day of strikes, including in Derna and Jafra, in central Libya, where what he called “terrorism centres” were located.
He said the targets included leadership headquarters as well as training camps and weapons storage facilities. Sixty jets were used in the earlier raids, he said.
Egypt has carried out air strikes in Libya occasionally since its neighbour descended into factional fighting in the years following the 2011 civil war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
Islamist militant groups, including Islamic State, have gained ground in the chaos, and Derna, a city of about 150,000 that straddles the coastal highway linking Libya to Egypt, has a long history with Islamist militancy.
Islamic State first attempted to establish a presence in Libya in Derna, but it faced armed resistance from more locally affiliated militant groups including Majlis Mujahideen Derna coalition and Abu Salim brigade. It was driven out of the city in 2015 and later set up its main Libyan base in Sirte.
Egypt has been backing eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army has been fighting Islamist militant groups and other fighters in Benghazi and Derna for more than two years.
Messmari told reporters in Benghazi late on Sunday that Haftar’s forces were coordinating with Egypt’s military and the weekend raids targeted ammunition stores and operations camps.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Friday the air raids targeted militants responsible for plotting the attack, and that Egypt would not hesitate to carry out additional strikes inside and outside the country.
(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif and Ahmed Aboulenein in Cairo; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Louise Ireland and Giles Elgood)