Unidentified aircraft attacked several locations in Libya's eastern city of Derna on October 30, 2017, killing 16 civilians and critically wounding 4 children.
Derna medical sources said that most victims were from the same extended family and included 12 children, ages 2 to 16.
The Libyan National Army forces (LNA), which has conducted airstrikes on Derna targets in the past months, denied any involvement in the attack in a televised statement, blaming "terrorists" and promising an investigation. Medical sources said that no fighters were known to have been killed or injured in this attack.
"An aircraft bombs a Libyan city and kills 16 civilians, yet none of the warring parties accepts responsibility for the attack or names the intended military target," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Derna residents run the risk of repeat incidents unless authorities start making good on their promise to investigate and hold those responsible for unlawful attacks to account."
The LNA, under the command of Gen. Khalifa Hiftar, imposed a siege on Derna in August 2016 in an effort to drive out fighters from the militant alliance Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC). The DMSC, which opposes the LNA, has controlled the city since participating in ousting the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), in April 2016.
Human Rights Watch spoke by phone on October 30 and 31 with Dr. Mansour Ben Fayed, the director of Derna's main hospital, who said that the October 30 airstrikes hit two locations, one in the al-Fatayeh neighborhood and the other in the rural area of al-Arqam.
Ben Fayed said that Derna's main hospital received 13 of the 16 people killed. The three others died in their home in al-Arqam and were buried without being taken to the hospital. Ben Fayed said the 13 brought to the hospital were all women and children who had been attending an event at a private house. He said that the hospital also treated the four injured children:
The first airstrikes hit a family farm in al-Fatayeh after 7 p.m., almost simultaneously with the call for Isha prayers. With the exception of one small child, all of the victims were dead upon arrival at the hospital. The child died soon after arrival. One of the bodies arrived with a severed head. The dead children were dug up from the rubble of the farmhouse after the airstrikes attacked it. Some of the bodies were charred, one child's head was split open from the back, and another had sustained severe injuries to the face.
Moncef al-Bazouti, who drove an ambulance to the farmhouse in al-Fatayeh to evacuate the injured and retrieve the bodies, told Human Rights Watch by phone on October 31:
As soon as we heard the impact of the first strike in the area of al-Fatayeh, all three ambulance cars moved from the hospital to the area of the incident. Just as we arrived and started to collect the dead bodies, a second strike hit the same area and caused some damage to the ambulance I was driving. We had to dig for the bodies under the collapsed wall of the house and the rubble. There were 12 bodies in total. I remember that one women had a severed head, limbs of some victims were severed too. The youngest victim was only 3 years old, and one of the injured children was only 3 months old.
Al-Bazouti provided Human Rights Watch with the names of the 12 victims he helped to remove from the private home. Ben Fayed said the 13th person killed in al-Fatayeh, a child, was brought to the hospital later in the evening.
Ben Fayed and al-Bazouti said that the al-Arqam area was not accessible for ambulances or other vehicles due to the LNA-imposed siege, making it impossible to remove the three bodies there.
Hana', a Derna resident who lives near to al-Fatayeh, told Human Rights Watch by phone on October 31 that she heard aircraft that "made a lot of noise" circling over their area before the first series of airstrikes began. She also said that between about midnight and 1 a.m., another series of airstrikes hit the western entrance to the city, causing damage to a building but no reported casualties.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to assess whether there were legitimate military targets in the vicinity of any of the airstrikes.
Previous airstrikes on Derna have not been investigated, Human Rights Watch said. Joint airstrikes by Libyan and Egyptian forces on Derna in February 2015 resulted in at least seven civilian casualties and damage to civilian structures. In February 2016, unidentified aircraft attacked a hospital in Derna, killing at least two civilians and damaging the hospital extensively. In May 2017, the Egyptian air force reportedly conducted airstrikes on Derna in retaliation for the killing of 28 Egyptian Christian Copts from Minya. The killings were later claimed by ISIS. No civilian casualties were reported.
Armed conflicts since 2014 have left the country with two rival governments claiming legitimacy. The United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, controls parts of western Libya in addition to the capital. A rival, the Interim Government, based in the eastern cities of al-Bayda and Tobruk, controls large swathes of eastern Libya, with the exception of Derna, and parts of the south. The Interim Government is linked with the House of Representatives and the LNA.
After the ouster of ISIS from Derna, the DMSC militant alliance took control of the city. The LNA formed the "Omar Al-Mukhtar Operations Room," currently under the command of Brigadier General Kamal al-Jabali, to "liberate" Derna from the DMSC. This military operation oversees access to all major entry points into Derna, and control s all movement of people and goods into and out of the city. Ben Fayed, the Derna hospital director, said that this operation has caused shortages in medical supplies and medication to the city. The LNA's siege of Derna has also restricted the movement of civilians.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, apply to all sides in the fighting in Libya. All attacks must be directed at military targets. Deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks against civilians and civilian structures are prohibited. The laws of war further require that warring parties "take all feasible precautions" to avoid or minimize harm to civilians and damage to civilian objects.
The laws of war require all parties to the conflict to allow and facilitate the "rapid and unimpeded passage" of humanitarian aid to civilians at risk, including in areas under siege. They also require parties to the conflict to allow free passage for civilians who wish to leave these areas.
Serious violations of the laws of war, when committed with criminal intent, are war crimes. Those who commit, order, assist, or have command responsibility for war crimes are subject to prosecution by domestic courts or the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in Libya since February 15, 2011, under UN Security Council resolution 1970.
"Warring factions should impartially investigate possible war crimes by their forces," Whitson said. "Sadly, too many wartime deaths of civilians have simply been ignored."