A Pentagon spokesman said today there’s no evidence that U.S. airstrikes were behind the deaths of two Serbian hostages being held by ISIS in Libya.
The early Friday strikes reportedly killing 49 targeted an ISIS training camp near Sabratha, a coastal city west of Tripoli, as well as Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian ISIS leader at the camp. Chouchane was a leading suspect in the March 2015 massacre at the Bardo Museum in Tunis; 22 were killed including 20 foreign tourists.
“The president made very clear we won’t hesitate to act when it comes to defending U.S. national security interests. And if we have opportunities, we will take action. And our fight against Daesh or ISIL, unfortunately, is broader than Iraq and Syria,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Friday.
“So I don’t want to say this is the opening of a new front. I mean, it’s just consistent with what we’ve said previously, which is as we see opportunities to take out senior leaders, to attack some of their camps.”
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook elaborated at Friday’s briefing that a decision was made to strike “after determining that both [Chouchane] and the ISIL fighters at these facilities were planning external attacks on U.S. and other Western interests in the region.” He said they’d been watching the training camp for “weeks.”
“This action is a clear demonstration of the secretary’s continued commitment to go after ISIL’s metastases wherever they emerge. It is fully consistent with our broader campaign plan to counter ISIL and prevent any efforts to establish new safe havens. As you know, this is not the first time we’ve taken direct action in Libya or against other high-value ISIL targets and it may not be the last,” Cook said, noting that the UK offered use of its bases for U.S. planes in the operation.
Cook said the strikes were conducted under the 2001 authorization of military force enacted for action against al-Qaeda.
“We believe that this was carried out under international law, and also specifically, that this operation was consistent with domestic and international law, and that this operation was conducted with the knowledge of Libya authorities,” he said.
But the internationally recognized Libyan government, which was run out of Tripoli by ISIS and now operates in the eastern part of the country, called the operation “a clear and flagrant violation of sovereignty of the Libyan state” that was not coordinated with their government.
And Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said today that two of their embassy staffers held hostage since Nov. 28 — Sladjana Stankovic, a communications officer, and Jovica Stepic, a driver — were killed in the U.S. strikes.
“Apparently, the Americans were not aware that foreign citizens were being kept there,” Vucic told reporters. “But that will always remain an unknown fact to us.”
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said that their security services had not had direct contact with the ISIS kidnappers, though “various alleged intermediaries” had contacted the hostages’ families. But Dacic said he thought they were “close to the solution for them to be freed,” perhaps in an operation with Libyan authorities.
Cook said in a statement that the Pentagon has “seen reports that two Serbian hostages have been killed in Libya.”
“At this time, we have no information indicating that their deaths were a result of the strike that U.S. forces conducted against an ISIL senior leader and ISIL training camp in Libya,” Cook said. “Our forces watched this training camp for weeks leading up to the operation, and at the time of the strike there were no indications of any civilians present.”
“While the circumstances of their deaths remain unclear, we, nevertheless, express our deepest condolences to the Serbian government and the families of those killed. We will share whatever information we can with the Serbian government,” he continued. “When conducting our operations, the U.S. military goes to extraordinary lengths to limit the risk of civilian casualties, and in our campaign to defeat ISIL we will continue to do so.”