CAIRO — Airstrikes launched by an unknown party targeting Islamist-led militias in Libya's capital killed six people Monday, authorities said, as the interim government vowed to investigate the strikes amid raging street battles.
The confusion over who launched the two fighter jets shows the chaos still engulfing Libya after the 2011 civil war that toppled down longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
In a statement, the government demanded the chief of staff and military intelligence to investigate the predawn strikes Monday morning targeting positions of militias originally from the coastal city of Misrata and its Islamist allies.
The strikes, under the cover of darkness, sparked fears that a foreign country like Italy carried out the attack, as the Libyan military does not have aircraft that can fly at night, according to a former colonel in the Libyan air force. Libya's newly elected parliament recently asked the United Nations to protect its civilians and stop the fighting. Italy's ambassador to Libya even went on local television to say his country was not involved.
Ahmed Hadiya, the spokesman for Libya Shield, an umbrella group for militias, suggested that the warplanes took off from the Wittiya air base west of Tripoli and targeted a base taken over by his militias recently. He did not provide more details.
A militiaman from the coastal city of Misrata said the jets belong to forces allied to renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter. The militiaman spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to journalists.
Ali al-Shekhli, an army spokesman, later told television station al-Naba that the jet fighters were "foreign" and urged the government to take action against what he described as a "blatant foreign intervention."
A statement by the Libyan Army chief of staff's media office said that jets used "guided bombs" not in the possession of the Libyan army. It also said the fighters couldn't have flown out of Wittiya because it is closed and Libyan jets can't fly for long distances at night due to needing to refuel.
Tarek Mitri, the outgoing U.N. envoy to Libya, denied that it was involved the strikes. He said both France and Italy denied being involved in the strikes either.
The violence in Libya is rooted to the empowerment of militias after successive transitional governments depended on them to maintain order in the absence of a strong police force or a unified military. It also came as part of a backlash by Islamist factions after losing their power in parliament following June elections and in the face of a campaign by Hifter against extremist Islamic militias in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city.
In Tripoli, fighting since June concentrated around its international airport, controlled since 2011 by militias affiliated to the mountain town of Zintan. Its opponents, a mixture of Mistara militias and Islamists, launched a surprise attack on the airport aiming to drive them out.
The fighting has destroyed the airport and seen rockets fall on residential areas, sparking fears of wider chaos and prompting diplomats, foreign nationals and Libyans to flee. For six hours, Egypt on Monday cancelled all flights to Libya, saying Libyan authorities had closed the country's airspace.