BENGHAZI, Libya: East Libyan forces yesterday captured a top suspected Egyptian militant long sought by Cairo on charges of orchestrating a deadly desert ambush on police last year and other high-profile attacks, a Libyan military spokesman said. Hisham Al-Ashmawy, a former Egyptian special forces officer, was apprehended in the city of Derna, on the coastal road about 266 km west of Libya’s border with Egypt, Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesman Ahmed Mismari said.
The LNA is the dominant force in Libya’s east. A separate UN-backed government rules in the west and multiple armed groups compete for power in the country seven years after autocrat Muammar Gaddafi was toppled by rebels. The LNA published a picture of Ashmawy with blood on his face, being examined before having bandages applied. It also posted a photo appearing to show his Egyptian military identity card.
“The terrorist Ashmawy was arrested in the Al-Maghar neighborhood in the city of Derna and was wearing an explosive vest but was unable to detonate it,” the LNA said. It said he would probably be handed over to Egypt after Libyan security officials had completed an investigation. An Egyptian military source confirmed Ashmawy’s capture to Reuters, without giving further details. The LNA declared that it had taken control of Derna in June from jihadists and other opponents, though sporadic fighting has continued.
Egypt has close relations with the LNA and has in the past launched air strikes over Derna, saying it was targeting jihadists linked to militant activity inside Egypt. The LNA said the wife and children of a second senior alleged militant, Mohamed Rifae Soroor, named in Egyptian media as Omar Rifae Soroor, were also apprehended. Egyptian state media reported that Libyan forces killed Soroor in June.
Egyptian authorities say Ashmawy heads the Ansar Al-Islam network, which claimed responsibility for an ambush against police in Egypt’s Western Desert one year ago. Egyptian officials also accuse the network, which they link to al-Qaeda, of an assassination attempt on a former interior minister in 2013. Egyptian security and intelligence sources say the group has mounted a recruiting campaign among former officers in recent years and is seen as more dangerous than militants operating in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
Derna has a recent history of militancy, and was briefly controlled by Islamic State before the ultra-hardline group was pushed out by local rivals in 2015. Before moving to Derna and switching his allegiance to al Qaeda, Ashmawy was active with Islamic State in the Sinai peninsula, according to Egyptian military sources. Militants launched an insurgency in Sinai after Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, was overthrown in 2013.
Separately, Egyptian security forces killed 52 suspected militants in North Sinai, the military said in a statement yesterday. Security forces launched a large-scale operation in February to crush militants who have waged an insurgency that has killed hundreds of security forces and residents over many years. Their deaths bring the total of suspected Islamist militants killed since the beginning of the operation to at least 509, according to Reuters calculations based on military statements.
The statement described those killed as “very dangerous” and said they were in possession of automatic rifles, ammunition, grenades and a drone. Half of the militants were killed in Al-Arish, the capital of North Sinai province, the statement said. Three military personnel were killed, it said. The media is not given direct access to cover high-security operations in Sinai. – Reuters