Update 2 | Confusion over reported murder of Libyan militia leader by Italian commandos

Libyan militia leader and alleged human smuggler reportedly killed by Italian special forces but relatives claim he is still alive and has nothing to do with smuggling

Last month militias arrested smugglers accused of sending hundreds to death off Zuwara
Last month militias arrested smugglers accused of sending hundreds to death off Zuwara

Relatives of an alleged Libyan militia leader, Salah Al-Maskhout, denied reports that he was killed in Tripoli by an Italian special forces team, according to online reports.

Online newspaper Libya Herald reported that Al-Maskhout is “said to be a key operator in smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean” and was reportedly killed early Friday morning in Tripoli.

But speaking to MaltaToday, people who claimed to be Al-Maskhout’s relatives and friends said that the reports are incorrect and in fact Al-Maskhout was alive. A man claiming to be Al-Maskhout’s nephew said his uncle was not involved in any militia and after retiring from the Libyan army in 1996 he is employed with an energy company based in Tripoli.

“He (Al-Maskhout) is alive and he has nothing to do with smuggling people,” the man told MaltaToday.

According to media reports in Libya, the Zuwara militia leader was killed by ‘armed men” as he was leaving the home of his relatives near the Tripoli Medical Centre while he was accompanied by his security team.

Interestingly, James Wheeler, a journalist with vast contacts in Libya and North Africa, tweeted that Al-Maskhout was killed by Italian commandos. Quoting Libyan sources, Wheeler said the Italians “set up a road block in Furnaj, near Tripoli Med Center, and shot Mashkoot and his guards when they stopped.”

Later, the Guardian reported that the president of Libya’s congress based in Tripoli, Nuri Abu Sahmain, issued a statement in which he blamed Italian special forces for the attack.

Abu Sahmain heads the parliament which rivals the internationally recognised government and House of Representatives based in the eastern cities of Al Bayda and Tobruk.

However, this has not been corroborated by Italian media reports and according to the Guardian, Italy’s defence ministry denied the allegations, confirming Al-Maskhout’s death but insisted that Italian agents were not involved. But this was also later dismissed by Migrant Report which said that the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry categorically denied that any Italian special forces "were in any way involved in any action" concerning Al-Maskhout.

In its report, Libya Herald adds that although the aggressors’ original intention was to seize the militia leader, he was killed by “professionals” armed with handguns.

Zuwara is considered the smuggling capital of Libya, particularly of asylum seekers, arms and fuel as militias operate in the security gaps left by the crumbling Libyan state.

Last month, after some 300 asylum seekers lost their lives off the Zuwara coast, three alleged smugglers were arrested and paraded by militias.

Scores of bodies of drowned people washed ashore in Zuwara and the scenes prompted protests from outraged local residents who vented their anger at trafficker gangs.

Arrests of human traffickers are far and few between in Libya as the powerful gangs tend to operate unrestrained amid the lawlessness caused by the political instability in Libya.

With two rival governments and parliaments vying for power and control of the oil-rich country, Libya has been unable to find a peaceful solution following the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The instability has also delayed the EU’s plans to seek and destroy smugglers’ boats in Libya and if the action was indeed carried out by Italian special forces this happened without mandate.

Yet, in recent years a number of operations by foreign forces have been carried out in Libya. Most notably, suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Libi’s was captured by US Delta Force operators and the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team in October 2013.

In June of last year, an Islamist militia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala was seized by US commandos in Benghazi over suspicions of his involvement in the 2012 attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in which ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.