Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Group Linked to ISIS Says It’s Behind Assault on Libyan Hotel
New York Times
JAN. 27, 2015

TRIPOLI, Libya — Militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State said they were responsible for an armed assault on a luxury hotel that killed at least five people here on Tuesday, the most significant in a string of terrorist attacks against Western interests and government institutions in the capital since the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi more than three years ago.

Four or five gunmen stormed the hotel, the Corinthia, in the early morning, firing their guns into the lobby, battling guards, and shooting at least one Filipino woman and possibly other civilians, according to news reports and people in contact with associates inside the hotel.

Fighters wearing black uniforms labeled “police” and loyal to the Tripoli government — one of two rival governments now fighting for control of Libya — responded to the attack, cordoning off streets and surrounding the hotel. Their forces entered a long standoff with assailants still inside.

A car exploded in the hotel parking lot, although it was unclear whether the cause was a car bomb, a rocket-propelled grenade or some kind of missile.

The hotel, one of the most luxurious in Tripoli, the capital, is a central hub for foreign tourists and businessmen visiting Libya, and it also houses the offices of several foreign embassies. But most foreigners have fled as the country has descended into chaos and armed conflict since last summer. Libyans who do business in the hotel said it was largely empty when the attack began.

An unnamed hotel employee told The Associated Press that guests, including British, Italian and Turkish visitors, had fled out the back of the hotel as the attackers entered the lobby. There were initial reports that some of the attackers had taken hostages, but by midday, security officials interviewed on Libyan television said that there were no hostages and that at least two of the attackers had been killed.

A group calling itself the Tripoli Province of the Islamic State, the extremist group that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq, issued a statement on social media claiming responsibility for the attack just as it was beginning. The group portrayed the assault as retaliation for the abduction last year by American commandos of a Libyan Qaeda operative, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi.

Mr. Ruqai, 50, died this month in a New York hospital of complications from liver surgery as he was waiting to stand trial for a role in Qaeda bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Accompanying a picture of smoke rising from the hotel parking lot, the statement called the attack “an inside operation” by “the heroes of the Caliphate,” and called the hotel a “headquarters that includes diplomatic missions and the crusader security companies.”

Libya has struggled to build a coherent and functional government to replace the one led by Colonel Qaddafi. Regional and ideological militias have battled for power and territory, often competing to coerce or intimidate the feeble institutions of the transitional government. Last summer, Libya broke into two warring coalitions based on opposite sides of the country.

Tripoli has come under the control of a coalition calling itself Libya Dawn, which includes moderate Islamist politicians, extremist Islamist fighters, the powerful militias from the city of Misurata and ethnic Berber groups in the West. Proclaiming its own “government of national salvation,” the Dawn coalition’s government rested its claims to legitimacy on the rump of a disbanded transitional Parliament reconvening in Tripoli.

Opponents of the Libya Dawn coalition routinely refer to it as a terrorist collaborator, happy to cooperate with extremists like Ansar al-Sharia, the Benghazi group linked to the killing of American ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in 2012, or the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The attack on the Corinthia may pose a test for the coalition, forcing it to either denounce some of its allies or appear to countenance the violence.

The rival coalition, under the banner Operation Dignity, is now based in the Eastern cities of Tobruk and Bayda, but it includes fighters from the Western city of Zintan, along with fighters and officer militias that were loyal to Colonel Qaddafi and those that renounced him. Its military effort is led by General Khalifa Hifter, who last year attempted a military takeover, promising to rid Libya of Islamists.

Under his protection, the leaders and a slight majority of a new Parliament elected last year have moved from Tripoli to Tobruk, where they have lent formal legitimacy to his battle against Libya Dawn and its allies.

In the chaos, three different Libyan militant groups have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State — one based in Derna in the east, one based in the southern desert, and the group based in the region around Tripoli that carried out the attack.

In December, the same group claimed responsibility for a bombing near the headquarters of the Foreign Ministry, in retaliation for a senior official’s “Merry Christmas” message, which the group deemed heretical. It has also claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of as many as 20 Egyptian Christians who were in Libya as guest workers in the coastal city of Surt.

Neither the Libya Dawn government in Tripoli nor the Dignity government in Tobruk had an immediate statement in response to the hotel attack.

Speaking on Libyan television, Omar Khadrawi, a security official for the Tripoli government, denied that the attack was perpetrated by Islamic State militants. He blamed “elements of the old regime,” accusing them of “tampering with the security situation that Tripoli is blessed with.”

Mahmoud Abu Hamza, another security official speaking on television from the scene of the attack, said he saw the bodies of two attackers, “those criminals.” He said one had detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and a security officer.

A European Union representative to Libya, Federica Mogherini, called the attack “another reprehensible act of terrorism that deals a blow to efforts to bring peace and stability to Libya.”

The United Nations is trying to convene a meeting in Geneva of representatives from both coalitions to form a unity government. Ms. Mogherini, in a statement, said the European Union “strongly supported” the talks “to bring a political solution based on respect and dialogue.”

The Corinthia was also the site of an assault in 2013, when unknown gunmen abducted then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who lived there at the time. He was released hours later, and no one was held responsible for his abduction.

The hotel is now reportedly the residence of Omar al-Hassi, the prime minister of Libya Dawn’s Tripoli government. But neither Mr. Hassi nor his guards were at the hotel at the time.

Local news reports said Mr. Hassi had been evacuated at the start of the attack.

Suliman Ali Zway reported from Tripoli, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo.

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