Outrage and calls for an independent probe mounted on Wednesday as 44 migrants were killed in an air strike on a detention centre in Libya that the UN said could constitute a war crime.
UN chief Antonio Guterres denounced the “horrendous” attack and demanded an independent investigation, as a divided Security Council failed to condemn the strike.
Libya’s internationally recognized government and its arch-foe strongman Khalifa Haftar traded blame for the deadly assault, which the European Union called a “horrific” attack.
Bodies were strewn on the floor of a hangar in the Tripoli suburb of Tajoura, mixed with the blood-soaked clothes of migrants.
“There were bodies, blood and pieces of flesh everywhere,” a survivor, 26-year-old Al-Mahdi Hafyan from Morocco, from his hospital bed where he was being treated for a leg wound.
Hafyan said he had been detained in the centre for three months, after coming to Libya with a fellow Moroccan hoping to reach Europe across the Mediterranean.
His friend survived the attack unscathed, but his T-shirt was stained with other people’s blood. “We were lucky. We were at the back of the hanger.”
Tuesday night’s strike left a hole around three metres (10 feet) in diameter in the hangar, surrounded by debris ripped from the metal structure by the force of the blast.
At least 44 people were killed and more than 130 severely wounded, the UN said.
The UN shared the coordinates of the Tajoura centre east of Tripoli with the warring sides to ensure that civilians sheltering there were safe, Guterres said.
UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame said the “attack clearly could constitute a war crime, as it killed by surprise innocent people whose dire conditions forced them to be in that shelter.”
Around 600 migrants and refugees were held in the Tajoura centre, the compound’s head Noureddine al-Grifi said, adding that people were wounded in another hangar.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
But the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) denounced the attack as a “heinous crime” and blamed it on the “war criminal Khalifa Haftar”, who in early April launched an offensive to seize the capital.
Wednesday evening a spokesman for Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) said: “The (pro-Haftar) forces deny their responsibility in the attack on the migrant centre of Tajoura”.
Ahmad al-Mesmari blamed the attack on the GNA, accusing it of “plotting” against the LNA.
Rescuers search for bodies and survivors under the rubble “We never target civilians. Our armed forces are professional and accurate in their strikes,” Mesmari said, calling for an investigation into the carnage.
The United States condemned an “abhorrent” attack and urged a “de-escalation”, the State Department said.
The European Union — echoing many countries and international organizations — called for an independent probe.
“Those responsible should be held to account”, an EU statement said.
The suburb of Tajoura, which has several military sites belonging to pro-GNA armed groups, is regularly targeted in air raids by Haftar’s forces.
The UN refugee agency deplored the attack.