GUNMEN stormed a luxury hotel in Libya’s capital yesterday, killing at least five foreigners and three guards, authorities said.
The attack, which included a car bombing, struck the Corinthia Hotel, which sits beside the Mediterranean Sea.
Mahmoud Hamza, commander of the so-called Special Deterrent Force, told TV station al-Nabaa the situation was “under control” yesterday afternoon, but could not confirm the whereabouts of the gunmen. He said five foreigners were killed, without elaborating any further.
Another security official had earlier said the gunmen killed three guards and took hostages, but he had no information on the captives’ identities. He also said two commercial landmark towers behind the hotel were evacuated due to security concerns. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to reporters.
A hotel worker said the attack began when five masked gunmen wearing bulletproof vests stormed the hotel after security guards at the gate tried to stop them. He said they entered the hotel and fired randomly at staff in the lobby. The worker said gunmen fired in his direction when he opened his door to look out. He said he joined the rest of the staff and foreign guests in fleeing via the hotel’s back doors into the parking lot.
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When they got there, he said, a car bomb exploded in the car park only 100 yards away, just after a protection force entered the lobby and opened fire on the attackers. He said two guards were immediately killed.
The worker spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared being targeted later by militants. He said the bomb left at least five cars in the car park burning and damaged some windows in the hotel’s facade.
He added that the hotel had Italian, British and Turkish guests, but was largely empty at the time of the attack. The militia-backed prime minister, Omar al-Hassi, usually lives at the hotel, but was not there yesterday, he added. Neither were al-Hassi’s security guards.
The hotel previously came under attack in 2013 when a former prime minister was abducted there.
The attack appears to have been designed for maximum impact, coming as the UN begins a new round of Libya peace talks in Geneva. Social media sites claimed the attack was the work of Isis in revenge for the death earlier this month of Abu Anas al-Libi, arrested by US Delta Force commandos in the Libyan capital two years ago.
Al-Libi was indicted and faced trial in New York on charges of bombing US embassies in east Africa. He died in hospital on 2 January.
Isis is rapidly making its presence felt in Libya. Earlier this month, the government said it was responsible for the execution of 14 soldiers captured near the southern town of Sabha.
The group is, meanwhile, holding 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians abducted from the town of Sirte. Isis units, including fighters who have returned from Syria, have already taken control of the coastal town of Derna, proclaiming it an Islamic caliphate and staging ritual executions.
In December, the Pentagon warned that the presence of Isis in Libya was growing, with training camps being set up.
Since the 2011 ousting and killing of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, the country has been torn among competing militias and tribes. Libya’s post-Gaddafi transition has collapsed, with two rival governments and parliaments – each backed by different militias – ruling in the country’s eastern and western regions. Tripoli has been hit with a series of car bombs and shootings amid the turmoil.
The Malta-owned hotel is also where the UN support mission in Libya holds its meetings. The mission is currently hosting political talks with rival Libyan groups in Geneva.