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Gunmen storm luxury hotel in Tripoli, a day after Geneva talks (+video)

Gunmen attacked the hotel lobby and a car exploded shortly afterward in the hotel parking lot. At least eight people were killed in the armed assault.

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    Security forces surround Corinthia hotel after a car bomb in Tripoli, Libya, Jan. 27, 2015. Gunmen attacked the hotel where government representatives and foreign delegations often stay, killing three security guards and probably taking hostages, officials said.
    Ismail Zitouny/Reuters
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UPDATE 12:50 p.m. Tuesday: This story was updated to reflect the latest information about the attack, including reports that militants with ties to the self-described Islamic State have claimed responsibility for it.

Gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in the Libyan capital of Tripoli Tuesday, reportedly killing at least five foreign guests and three guards in the latest testament to the country’s enduring instability.

Militants claiming allegiance to the self-described Islamic State said they were responsible for the armed assault on the five-star Corinthia Hotel. The New York Times called it "the most significant in a string of terrorist attacks against Western interests and government institutions" in Tripoli since the ouster of the dictator Muammar Qaddafi three years ago.

Reuters reports that security forces evacuated guests after the gunmen blasted into the building. The hours-long standoff ended when two assailants set off a grenade that killed them, according to The Associated Press. It was not clear whether they had accomplices.  

The seaside hotel has been a popular location with foreigners and Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi. There are conflicting reports of whether the prime minister was inside the hotel at the time of the attack.

Reports about the attack itself were also conflicting, making it impossible to immediately resolve the different accounts.

A hotel staffer initially told the AP that five masked gunmen wearing bulletproof vests stormed the hotel after guards at the gates tried to stop them. He said they entered the hotel and fired at the staff in the lobby, but that he was able to escape out the hotel's back doors. A car exploded shortly afterward in the parking lot.

The staffer said the hotel, which had Italian, British and Turkish guests, was largely unoccupied at the time of the attack. A hotel security source told the BBC that the hotel had received a threat "a few days ago" warning managers "to empty the building."

The Times reports that a group called the Tripoli Province of the Islamic State issued a statement on social media claiming responsibility for the attack just as it started.

The group portrayed the assault as retaliation for the abduction last year by American commandos of a Libyan Qaeda operative, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, also known as Abu Anas al-Libi. …

Accompanying a picture of smoke rising from the hotel parking lot, the statement called the attack “an inside operation” by “the heroes of the caliphate,” and called the hotel a “headquarters that includes diplomatic missions and the crusader security companies.”

But officials in Tripoli who have set up their own self-proclaimed government blamed the attack on former Gaddafi loyalists bent on assassinating their prime minister.

Libya has been roiled by violence since the overthrow of Mr. Qaddafi in October 2011, as competing militias vie for power. The turmoil has led to the formation of two rival governments and parliaments – each backed by different militias – ruling in the eastern and western regions.

Car bombs and shootings have become commonplace in Tripoli. The militia Libya Dawn has been in control since August, when it expelled the internationally recognized government, forcing it to operate out of the eastern city of Bayda.

The hotel was attacked a day after Libya’s feuding factions gathered in Geneva to resume talks on ending the conflict, one that has put it at risk of economic and social collapse.

Bernardino León, head of the United Nations Mission in Libya, told The New York Times that representatives of Libya Dawn refused to attend the meeting. But, he said, they had agreed to participate in the talks when they returned to Libya. As the Times reported late last week:

The talks starting on Monday are “transitional,” Mr. León said, but the intention is to have the dialogue progress to deal with security issues, including a cease-fire and the withdrawal of armed groups from cities, as well as the formation of a national unity government.

The conflict in Libya has sparked a humanitarian crisis, with at least 120,000 people forced to flee their homes, according to the UN.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, an uptick in violence had led to 450 deaths since October 2014. Upwards of 15,000 families – some 90,000 people – have been displaced in the city.

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