Egypt and the United Arab Emirates secretly carried out airstrikes against Islamist militias inside Libya, a State Department spokeswoman said Tuesday, decrying the intervention as an escalation of the North African country's already debilitating turmoil. US officials said the United States had no prior notification of the attacks.
One official said the two countries and Saudi Arabia have been supporting for months a renegade general's campaign against Libyan militant groups, but that the Saudis don't appear to have played a role in recent strikes. Another official said Washington knew about Egyptian and U.A.E. plans for a possible operation and warned them against going through with the effort.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed that Egypt and U.A.E. had carried out the strikes.
Libya is undergoing its worst violence since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi three years ago. Tripoli's international airport is largely destroyed. Diplomats, foreign nationals and thousands of Libyans have fled the country.
The violence has its roots in the collapse of the Libyan state with Qaddafi's demise, as powerful militias seized power and the central government proved unable to create a strong police force or unified military. In recent months, Islamist fighters have faced backlash, losing their power in parliament after June elections and facing a counteroffensive by former Qaddafi and rebel Gen. Khalifa Hifter. Washington doesn't support the general. But some of Libya's regional allies, fearful of the growing power of the Islamist extremists, have helped Hifter.
A US official said recent airstrikes weren't done with authorization from Libya's government.
The officials weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity. The Egyptian and U.A.E. role in the strikes was first reported by The New York Times.
In a joint statement, the United States joined with Britain, France, Germany and Italy in expressing its concerns, saying ""outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya's democratic transition."
And the newly appointed UN envoy to Libya said he doesn't believe foreign intervention is helpful. The diplomat, Bernardino Leon, said only an inclusive political process with all Libyans represented in parliament, government and other state institutions will end the instability gripping the country.
"Any kind of intervention or foreign intervention won't help Libya get out of chaos," Leon said.
American officials have not attributed the strikes to any country publicly. Egypt has repeatedly denied involvement. Emirati officials have not commented.
Islamist militias in Libya have made similar allegations against Egypt and the U.A.E. following two days of mysterious airstrikes against Islamist-allied militia positions in Libya's capital, Tripoli, since Aug. 18.
The strikes happened as Islamist-backed militias were fighting for control of Tripoli's international airport. Libyan officials have repeatedly called the airstrikes "foreign," and the country's air force likely does not have the capability to fly night sorties.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri on Tuesday said reports of an Egyptian role in the airstrikes were "unsubstantiated rumors."
Shukri said his country respects Libya's popular will and elected parliament, and wanted to help train its armed forces. "But we have no direct connection to any of the military operations on the ground in Libya," he said.
The Emirates and its Gulf neighbor Qatar played the most prominent Arab roles in the military intervention that helped lead to Gadhafi's ouster, with both sending warplanes to assist the NATO-led effort. They also provided humanitarian aid, and Qatar in particular played a major role as a supplier of weapons to rebel groups.
But the two countries — both important US allies — today find themselves in opposing camps jostling for influence in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.
The Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — who led the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi — are staunchly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see as a threat to their ruling systems. Morsi hails from the Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamic group.
Qatar is far more accommodating to the Brotherhood and its allies, including Islamist factions fighting for power in Libya. It was a major backer of Morsi's government and is home to the leader of Hamas, an Islamist group that Israel and the West consider to be a terrorist organization.