Egypt on Monday called for international support as its air force hit Libyan radicals loyal to Islamic State in response to the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians.
As warplanes struck the rebel stronghold of Derna in eastern Libya, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri headed to New York where he was expected to ask UN Security Council members for backing against the radicals.
Egypt was to demand that the radical group be met just as forcefully in Libya as in Syria and Iraq, where a US-led coalition is engaged in an air campaign against it, Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdel-Aty said.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi meanwhile visited St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo’s Abbasiya district and offered his condolences to Coptic Pope Tawadros II over the killing of the 21 migrant workers.
The air strikes on Derna targeted the radicals’ bases and weapons storage facilities, according to an army statement broadcast on state television.
“The strike has achieved its aims precisely,” the army said, without giving details.
Libyan air force commander General Saqr al-Jurushi – loyal to the country’s international recognized government based in the eastern city of Tobruk – told Egyptian television that at least 50 militants had been killed in the strikes.
The action was condemned by the rival, Islamist-leaning authorities in the capital Tripoli as “a blatant violation of Libyan sovereignty.”
Tripoli-based premier Omar al-Hassi accused Cairo of “trying to export its crisis to Libya and distract our Egyptian brothers from their legitimate demands.”
He called for international pressure to stop the raids, which he said had killed seven people, “most of them women and children.”
The reported casualties could not immediately be verified. The independent Libya Herald newspaper reported that all but one of the strikes appeared to have hit military sites outside Derna.
The air strikes came hours after the group released a video apparently showing the 21 abducted Coptic Christians being beheaded on the shore of the Mediterranean, in what it said was a message to “the nation of the cross.”
Egypt has declared seven days official mourning for the victims, all reportedly from two poor southern towns. Top government and military officials made their way to the cathedral throughout the day to express their condolences to the Pope.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said hundreds of thousands of its citizens were still in Libya. Abdel-Aty said a crisis group in the ministry was seeking to facilitate the departure of any Egyptians wishing to leave. Egypt recently banned its citizens from entering Libya due to repeated attacks and kidnappings.
French President Francois Hollande condemned the killings and expressed his condolences in a phone call with al-Sissi.
Libya has seen in recent months its worst violence since the 2011 overthrow of longtime dictator Moamer Gaddafi in an uprising.
Militias loyal to the two rival governments have been fighting for territory. Tobruk is also attempting to expel radicals from the country’s second city, Benghazi.
The United Nations is overseeing a slow-moving political dialogue to broker a way out of the conflict.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, condemning the killings of the Egyptians, stressed the bloc’s continued support for that process.
“Our priority at this stage is to actively support the UN-facilitated Libyan dialogue process. … This process should lead to a negotiated settlement that would put an end to this ongoing violence and the ongoing crisis,” Mogherini said.
On Thursday, Mogherini is to meet in Washington with US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Egyptian foreign minister to discuss the situation in Libya.
Egypt has previously been reported to have assisted air raids by the United Arab Emirates in support of pro-Tobruk forces.
It has denied taking action inside Libya but has promised to train the Libyan army and has given Tobruk strong political backing.
Islamic State, which controls considerable territory in Syria and Iraq, has gained the allegiance of radicals in Derna and some other Libyan cities.
Many Libyans are thought to have fought in the civil war in Syria, during the course of which Islamic State has gained control of an estimated 30 per cent of the Levantine country’s territory and come to rival al-Qaeda as a linchpin of global radicalism. SAPA