Did US Know Serbian Embassy Hostages Were Held in Bombed Libya Islamic State Camp?
Two Serbian embassy staff members were among nearly 50 people killed on Friday in US airstrikes targeting Islamic State militants in Libya, and Serbia’s foreign minister accused the United States of knowing the hostages were at the targeted site.
Serbian Embassy communications chief Sladjana Stankovic and her driver, Jovica Stepic, were abducted by Islamic State militants in Libya last November. Stankovic and Stepic were being held prisoner at an IS training camp in Sabratha, a seaside town 50 miles (80 km) west of Tripoli. On Friday, US warplanes bombed the camp in a bid to kill Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian militant linked to two major terrorist attacks on Western tourists in Tunisia last year. At least 49 people, including the Serbian captives, were killed in the attacks.
Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic told reporters on Saturday that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other intelligence agencies told his government that they knew that Stankovic and Stepic were being held at the camp prior to the air strikes, and that he had been informed of their exact location.
However, Middle East Eye reports Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic contradicted Dacic later on Saturday, saying the Americans did not know the hostages were being held in the bombed camp.
“The most solid information we received, we got from the Spanish on February 12,” he said. “We [then] got information about that location from the CIA and the FBI that there was no activity in that location.”
Vucic, who called the Serbian deaths “terrible collateral damage,” said that his government had been close to securing the hostages’ release.
“I think we would have been able to pull out the abducted personnel if they weren’t killed in the bombing,” he said.
Reuters reports Dacic said Serbia will send a protest note to US officials for not informing them of the air strikes. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook released a statement claiming US forces did not know the Serbians were being held at the targeted IS camp.
“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,” said Cook. “We will share whatever information we can with the Serbian government.”
Serbia had been criticized for leaving embassy staff in war-torn Libya even after most other countries had evacuated their personnel as the security situation there deteriorated, but Serbian officials said they did so because Libya kept representatives in Belgrade during the 1999 US-led NATO war against Serbia.
Libya has had two competing governments since 2014, one based in the capital Tripoli and the other, which is recognized by the international community, in eastern Libya. Libya’s United Nations-backed Presidential Council announced the formation of a revised national unity government earlier this week, with its members expected to be named on Saturday.
Serbia has ties with both of Libya’s governments, and is also a member of the international coalition against IS.
“Our country is not able to send troops into battle against IS, but we can contribute to the exchange of intelligence with other countries,” Serbian political analyst Vuk Stankovic told Middle East Eye. “I am certain that after this incident in which Serbian civilians were a collateral damage, the exchange of operational intelligence will be highly intensified.”