BELGRADE, Serbia – Two Serbian embassy staffers held hostage since November are believed to have been killed in Friday’s U.S. airstrikes on an Islamic State camp in western Libya, Serbia’s foreign minister said Saturday.
Minister Ivica Dacic identified the two as Sladjana Stankovic, a communications officer, and Jovica Stepic, a driver. They were snatched in November after their diplomatic convoy, including the ambassador, came under fire near the coastal Libyan city of Sabratha.
Speaking at a news conference in Belgrade, Dacic said information about the deaths was given to Serbia by foreign officials but had not yet been confirmed by the Libyan government.
“We got the information, including photos, which clearly show that this is most probably true,” Dacic said.
American F-15E fighter-bombers on Friday struck an Islamic State training camp in rural Libya near the Tunisian border, killing dozens, probably including an IS operative considered responsible for deadly attacks in Tunisia last year, U.S. and local officials said.
Dacic said Serbia had known where the hostages were and had been working to get them back, adding that Libyan troops were considering an operation to free them.
“I believe we had been close to the solution for them to be freed. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the attack against ISIS in Libya, the two of them lost their lives,” Dacic said. “We will seek official explanation from both Libya and the United States about the available facts and the selection of targets.”
He said, according to the information received by the Serbian security services, a criminal group that had demanded ransom and was believed to be linked to IS had been holding the hostages at the site that was bombed.
“On the other hand, the American administration said it was an (ISIS) training camp,” Dacic said. “This is information that has to be checked.”
A Libyan armed group calling itself the Special Deterrent Forces announced on Facebook that the two bodies had been delivered to Tripoli’s Matiga Airport. The group posted pictures showing two green coffins inside a hearse, and another of one of the coffins sitting on a tarmac next to a small plane.
The Special Deterrent Forces are loyal to the militia-backed government that now controls Tripoli. The group’s posting did not indicate when the bodies would be flown to Serbia.
In November, gunmen in Libya crashed into a convoy of vehicles taking Serbia’s ambassador to neighbouring Tunisia and then kidnapped the two embassy employees. Serbian ambassador Oliver Potezica, who escaped unharmed and was travelling in the three-vehicle convoy with his wife and two sons, later recounted the attack.
“The attack happened when one of the embassy cars was hit from behind. When the driver came out to check what happened, he was dragged into one of the attackers’ cars,” Potezica told Tanjug news agency.
Since the 2011 overthrow of Libya’s longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi, the sprawling North African nation has fractured into warring camps backed by a loose array of militias, former rebels and tribes.
Libya’s internationally recognized government has been forced out of the capital, Tripoli, and now operates out of the eastern cities of Tobruk and Bayda. Another government, backed by Islamist-affiliated militias known as Libya Dawn, controls Tripoli and much of western Libya. U.N.-brokered efforts to form a unity government continue to falter.
The chaos has provided fertile ground for Islamic extremist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group to flourish.