DESPITE PENTAGON EVASIONS, evidence is mounting that a U.S. airstrike against an ISIS training camp in Libya last month killed two Serbian diplomats who were being held at the site. The Pentagon erroneously believed that no civilians were at the camp at the time of the attack, according to Serbian and Libyan officials interviewed by The Intercept.
The diplomats, who were staffers at the Serbian Embassy in Tripoli, were kidnapped during an attack in early November on a diplomatic convoy near Sabratha, a coastal city 50 miles west of the Libyan capital. Serbia’s ambassador, Oliver Potezica, who was traveling with his wife and two sons in the three-vehicle convoy, escaped unharmed, but Sladjana Stankovic, a 41-year-old communications officer, and Jovica Stepic, a 60-year-old driver, were taken by the attackers.
On February 19, the Pentagon announced it had conducted an airstrike on an ISIS training camp in a farmhouse near Sabratha. The principal target of the attack was Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian national described as a “senior facilitator” for ISIS in Libya and a prime suspect in two deadly attacks in Tunisia last year. The strike, which involved fighter jets and drones, was authorized by President Obama. At the time, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook characterized the attack as “very successful” and made no mention of any civilian casualties.
The day after the attack, Belgrade announced that Stankovic and Stepic had died in the bombing. “Apparently, the Americans were not aware that foreign citizens were being kept there,” Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told reporters.
The Pentagon immediately expressed doubt about his account.
“We have seen reports that two Serbian hostages have been killed in Libya,” Cook said on February 20. “At this time, we have no information indicating that their deaths were a result of the strike that U.S. forces conducted. … Our forces watched this training camp for weeks leading up to the operation, and at the time of the strike, there were no indications of any civilians present.”
Belgrade backed up its account a few days later with the results of autopsies conducted in Serbia that concluded the types of injuries sustained by the two diplomats were consistent with a bombing.
But the Pentagon continued to dispute the Serbian accounts. Capt. Jeff Davis, a military spokesperson, said on February 24 that an analysis of photos posted online of the two bodies offered no proof they were killed in the airstrike. “It was not consistent with what we would expect human remains to look like following a strike of that magnitude,” he said, according to AFP.
That prompted several new statements from Serbian officials, including Prime Minister Vucic.
“When there are 12 wounds on a body sustained simultaneously, unequivocally from an explosion, then [the Pentagon] must show us any kind of evidence that would drag us into any other kind of story,” Vucic stated. “It would have been nicer if they said, ‘We’re sorry, Serbs and Stepic and Stankovic families.’”
According to a senior security official at the Serbian Security Information Agency, known by its acronym, BIA, intelligence agencies from a number of countries — including the U.S., Serbia, Italy, Spain, and France — were sharing information about the hostages while they were still alive. The agencies all believed the hostages were being held in one of four or five possible sites within a 10 kilometer radius of each other, according to the security official. The most credible intelligence pointed to one house in particular, located some 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from the camp that was bombed by the U.S.
The security official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the case, said the discovery of Stankovic’s and Stepic’s bodies came as a big surprise to Serbian intelligence, as the ISIS camp was not among any of the suspected sites. The camp was 700 to 800 meters from the spot where the two diplomats were abducted in November, leading Serbian intelligence to conclude that they were brought to the farmhouse and held there for their entire time in captivity. The official added that Serbian intelligence now believes the hostages were never allowed outside, which would explain why U.S. surveillance did not apparently spot any indication of civilians at the site in the run-up to the strikes.
The deaths of the Serbian hostages and the apparent shortfalls in U.S. military intelligence are similar to a CIA drone strike in Pakistan last year that killed two kidnapped foreign aid workers. Both cases involve the U.S. surveilling and bombing a target without apparently realizing Western hostages were being held at the site. In April 2015, the White House announced that a counterterrorism operation in January targeting an al Qaeda compound in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan had mistakenly killed two hostages: American Warren Weinstein, who was kidnapped in 2011, and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, who was abducted in 2012. President Obama apologized for the mistake.
“Based on the intelligence that we had obtained at the time, including hundreds of hours of surveillance, we believed that this was an al Qaeda compound; that no civilians were present,” Obama said. “What we did not know, tragically, is that al Qaeda was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in this same compound.”
EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS from Libya bolster the case that the Serbians were killed in the U.S. bombing. The mayor of Sabratha, Hussein Dwadi, told The Intercept that he went to the site soon after the airstrike. “The house was completely destroyed, there were bodies everywhere,” he said. The Libyan Red Crescent, which helped remove the corpses, put the death toll at 42. Dwadi then went to Sabratha’s main hospital, which was receiving dozens of dead and wounded from the bombing. Inside, he saw the body of a woman with light hair among the casualties and suspected she might be one of the Serbian hostages. He also saw the body of what appeared to be another foreigner.
“They definitely didn’t look Libyan or Tunisian,” Dwadi said. He added that the two bodies he saw were eventually taken to Tripoli. “The claim that the Serbians died anywhere other than in the airstrike is highly unlikely,” Dwadi said.posted photos on its official Facebook page showing two green coffins in the back of a van and another of a coffin on the tarmac beside a plane, alongside photos of Stankovic and Stepic before they were killed.
Soon after the bodies arrived at Mitiga, someone photographed them as they lay in the airport’s morgue and published them on social media, according to the secretary general of the Serbian Foreign Affairs Ministry, Veljko Odalovic. He told The Intercept that officials in Belgrade were quickly made aware of these online pictures — which depict the fatally wounded heads and partial torsos of Stankovic and Stepic — and it was upon seeing the photos, a few hours after the airstrike, that the Serbian government first learned of the deaths of its diplomats.
According to Odalovic, the ministry then contacted its ambassador to Libya — Potezica, who had escaped the kidnapping attempt in November. Potezica went to the Tripoli airport, where he saw the bodies and confirmed to Belgrade that they were Stankovic and Stepic. In a press conference the day after the attacks, Foreign Affairs Minister Ivica Dacic cited the pictures as evidence of the hostages’ deaths. “We got the photographs that indicate clearly that the information is most probably true,” he told reporters in Belgrade.
Odalovic was closely involved with the hostage case from the day of the abduction in November and had traveled to Tripoli to meet Libyan security officials. “We had strong assurances that the hostage situation would be over very soon, especially in the days immediately before the bombing,” he told The Intercept, adding that the Libyans were planning a rescue operation. He said Belgrade had received photographs of the hostages in custody through intermediaries in Libya who were in contact with the kidnappers. “We had indisputable evidence that they were alive,” Odalovic said.
A few days after the Pentagon flatly denied the Serbian hostages were killed in the airstrike, the U.S. ambassador to Serbia, Kyle Scott, met with Prime Minister Vucic in Belgrade and said the Pentagon statement did not reflect the official U.S. position and that an investigation was still underway, according to a news release by the Serbian government.
Yet the Defense Department continued to deny that any civilians were killed in the attack. “We continue to assess the situation, but we have no indications that any civilians were killed during this strike,” said Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza, a Pentagon spokesperson, in an email to The Intercept on March 1.
On March 3, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter met with Vucic in Belgrade. The two officials reached an agreement that “the United States and Serbia want [the] full truth about this case to be determined through investigation and information exchange,” according to another release by the Serbian government.
“There have been contradictory statements and information from the U.S.,” Odalovic said. “Immediately after the attack, in the first exchange of information with American military and security officials, we asked them if they knew that civilians were among the terrorists. We still haven’t received a definitive answer on that, and that’s what we’ll insist on. We expect a full report from the U.S. and then we can comment on it.”
Yet on March 14, the Pentagon still balked at backing down. “We continue to assess and share whatever information we can with the Serbian government,” Lt. Col. Baldanza said in an emailed statement to The Intercept. She added that the Pentagon “will provide additional information as and when appropriate.” She would not say whether the Defense Department has requested the autopsy results from the Serbian government.
AMID THE CONTROVERSY, the family of Stepic, the driver, firmly believes he died in the U.S. attack. Stepic’s half-brother, in an interview with The Intercept, pointed to the results of the autopsies conducted in Serbia. “The chief of pathology confirmed they were killed in the bombing,” said Velja Misic. He added that the prime minister told the family that efforts to free the hostages had been going in a positive direction.
“There would have most certainly been a positive outcome if they hadn’t been killed by American bombs,” Misic said.
One of the additional mysteries about the Libya attack relates to whether the Pentagon notified any Libyan authorities in advance of it. Lt. Col. Baldanza told The Intercept that the Sabratha strike was conducted “with the knowledge of Libyan authorities,” though she declined to specify who the authorities were. Libya is currently torn between three governments and an array of militias with a complex web of regional, tribal, and political alliances. A self-declared government is based in the west; an internationally recognized government is in the east; and a unity government is being formed in neighboring Tunisia through a process spearheaded by the United Nations.
“This strike may have been carried out without the consent of the different governments since they all protested it,” said Issandr El Amrani, the North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. “It’s not clear that any of them were informed, so, in this sense, this is a strike that may be taking place in violation of Libya’s sovereignty.” Amrani added, however, that if any authorities were informed, they would not publicly acknowledge it, for fear of being criticized for cooperating with the Americans.
In a news conference to announce the February strike, Cook told reporters the operation was legal under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which was passed by Congress in the wake of September 11 and authorizes the president to target the perpetrators of those attacks. President Obama’s proposal last year for a new AUMF to target ISIS didn’t get through Congress. Since then, the Obama administration has dubiously maintained that its airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and Libya are authorized by the 2001 law.
The February airstrike is just the latest in a number of U.S. operations in Libya. In November, the Pentagon announced it conducted an airstrike in the eastern city of Derna, targeting Abu Nabil, also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi, a senior leader of ISIS in Libya. In June, an American airstrike on Ajdabiya, in Libya’s oil crescent region, reportedly killed the leader of Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia, a group with ties to al-Qaeda, according to the New York Times.
The United Nations, which keeps a tally of civilian casualties in Libya, has not yet taken a position on whether the Pentagon’s denial should be believed. In a report this month on year-to-date civilian casualties, the U.N. did not include the two Serbian hostages, stating, “There is still uncertainty as to how these deaths occurred and investigations are still ongoing.” The U.N. does not have the capacity or the mandate to investigate the deaths, according to Jean Alam, a public information officer for the U.N. mission in Libya.
Nevertheless, Misic is convinced his half-brother was killed in the U.S. bombing and that incidents like this will happen again.
“The Americans are famous for this,” he said. “They can enter wherever they want, do whatever they want, and leave with no consequences. … Tomorrow they will do this on some other place. … Someday the U.S. government will have to admit that they made mistakes.”