CAIRO (AP) — The death toll from an airstrike that slammed into a military facility in Libya’s capital climbed to at least 30 people, most of them military trainees, health authorities said Sunday, as fighting over control of Tripoli between rival armed groups escalated.
Eastern Libyan forces led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter launched an offensive in April to take the capital from the weak, U.N.-supported government. Libya is governed by rival authorities in the east and in Tripoli in the west, with each relying on different militias.
The airstrike hit a military academy used by the Tripoli-allied militias late Saturday in the Hadaba area, just south of the city center, the health ministry of the Tripoli-based government said. Fighting and shelling between the two sides has been raging for months in the area.
The U.N.-supported Libyan government in Tripoli blamed the airstrike on Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army.
A spokesman for the LNA, Ahmed al-Mesmari, denied launching airstrikes on the military academy, blaming the attack on Islamic militants. Neither side provided evidence to support their accusations.
The U.S. embassy also blamed the attack on LNA-affiliated forces.
“This deterioration in security underscores the dangers of toxic foreign interference in Libya, such as the arrival of Syrian fighters supported by Turkey as well as the deployment of Russian mercenaries,” the embassy said in a statement.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria’s civil war, said Sunday that around 1,000 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels have arrived in Tripoli to join the fighting against Hifter forces.
It said a Syrian rebel was killed in the Tripoli fighting the past days, and his body was moved to Turkey. There was no independent confirmation of the report.
Libyan and U.S. officials have accused Russia of deploying fighters through a private security contractor, the Wagner Group, to key battleground areas in Libya in the past months. Moscow has repeatedly denied playing any role in Libya’s fighting.
Hifter has declared a “final” and decisive battle for the capital. That followed a military and maritime agreement that Tripoli authorities signed with their ally Turkey calling for the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya.
Turkey’s parliament on Thursday authorized sending forces to Libya to support Tripoli authorities. Libya’s eastern-based parliament condemned the move along with other regional and world powers, including Saudi Arabia, which on Saturday called it a threat to Arab and regional security, according to the kingdom’s official news agency.
Ghassan Salame, the U.N. envoy to Libya, said Turkish troops on the ground would further diminish chances for ending the violence, as Germany is working with the United Nations to host a conference on Libya by early 2020.
The ambulance service in Tripoli said the airstrike also wounded at least 33 people. It posted images of dead bodies and those wounded being treated at a hospital.
The U.N. Support Mission in Libya condemned in “the strongest terms” the attack. It warned in a statement against “growing escalation” in the violence.
Separately, an LNA official said a drone strike Sunday killed three troops at an LNA airbase in western Libya. The official blamed the Tripoli-allied militias for the attack, which he said used a Turkish-made drone. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
Tripoli’s siege has killed hundreds of people, mostly combatants, and displaced thousands of families in the city and the surrounding areas.
The conflict threatens to plunge Libya into levels of chaos rivaling the 2011 uprising that ousted and later killed its ruler, Moammar Gadhafi.
France, Egypt, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries support Hifter and his allies in the east. The Tripoli-based government is backed by Qatar, Italy and Turkey.
Last month, U.N. experts in a report to the U.N. Security Council said that “Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates routinely and sometimes blatantly supplied weapons, with little effort to disguise the source” in violation of the U.N. arms embargo.
The U.N. panel said neither side in Libya has “the military capability” to win the stalemated conflict.