AT least 50 police recruits were killed and dozens injured in Libya on Thursday when a bomb ripped through a training centre, dealing a devastating blow to international attempts to pull the oil-rich North African nation out of years of deepening violence.
While no group claimed the attack in the western coastal city of Zliten, the deadliest seen in Libya, it comes after Islamic State stepped up is violence in the nation, shelling its biggest oil centre.
If the bombing was carried by Islamic State, then “the big question now is whether it will make the clock tick faster for any western intervention,” said Mattia Toaldo, a Libya analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “They should be careful to craft a response that doesn’t destroy the political process.”
Said Muftah al-Himady, head of the local council, described the bombing as “massive,” adding that a van or truck was probably used to carry the explosives, given the enormity of the explosion. Al-Jazeera said it was likely carried out by Islamic State, whose presence in Libya has been steadily growing since the country fractured between two rival administrations in the summer of 2014, one based in the east and the other in the west.
Al-Himady said he wasn’t able to give a precise death toll. Libya’s state-run news agency reported that at least 50 people died, citing witnesses and hospital officials. Al-Arabiya television said that as many as 100 recruits were killed. The Ministry of Health declared a state of emergency, and asked all hospitals to help treat incoming patients. Hospitals were calling for blood donations.
Libya descended into chaos following the ouster and death of Muammar Qaddafi in an uprising in 2011, with rival militias and their political allies vying for influence and control of the country’s natural resources, and creating a power vacuum that allowed Islamic State to thrive.
The militant group this week shelled Libya’s biggest oil port, Es Sider, starting fires that spread to storage tanks and prompted the National Oil Corp. to issue a “cry for help.” The United Nations has been trying to win support for a unity government to stem the spiraling unrest.
With Africa’s largest oil reserves, Libya pumped about 1.6 million barrels a day of crude before the 2011 uprising. It’s now the smallest producer in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), producing 370,000 barrels a day in December, and is facing a growing economic crisis.
Local police said the attack on the recruiting centre took place at about 8 a.m. local time, when about 400 trainees were gathered for a morning meeting.
Zliten lies about 160 kilometres (100 miles) east of the capital, Tripoli.