BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - At least nine civilians including women and children were killed in an air strike near an oasis town in central Libya on Tuesday, a hospital doctor and local officials said.
The identity of the war planes responsible for the strike near Houn could not be confirmed. Armed groups loyal to factions based in eastern and western Libya operate nearby.
A spokesman for forces loyal to Libya’s eastern government said war planes from the western city of Misrata had carried out the strike as they tried to target a rival brigade that had recently been in the area.
But an air force spokesman in Misrata, Mohamed Gonono, denied the claim. “Our air force did not reach that area,” he said. “We only conducted reconnaissance in the coastal region.”
An eyewitness in Houn said residents had heard war planes overhead before learning that civilians had been hit as they were visiting thermal springs south of the city.
He went to the hospital in Houn to try to offer help and described the situation there as “chaotic.” A doctor in Houn and a statement from the municipal council of Al Shgega - the main town in the region that many of the victims came from - said at least nine people were killed and 20 wounded.
Armed forces from Misrata and the east are on opposite sides of Libya’s political divide and have been involved in a sporadic conflict for more than two years.
The eastern forces are loyal to a parliament and government that relocated from Tripoli in 2014 after rival factions backed by Misratan armed groups seized control of the capital, setting up parallel institutions.
Misrata’s main factions now support a U.N.-backed government that is trying to establish itself from Tripoli but has failed to win endorsement from the east. For the past four months Misrata’s armed groups have been engaged in a battle against Islamic State in Sirte, about 275 km (170 miles) north of Houn.
Fears of renewed civil conflict rose over the past 10 days after eastern forces seized four oil ports and advanced along the coast to within about 150 km of Sirte.
Earlier, a military source said six people had been killed when a military helicopter operated by armed forces loyal to the eastern government crashed late on Monday.
Among those killed was Colonel Idris Younes, an adviser to the head of Libya’s eastern parliament, the source said, adding that two passengers had survived.
He said the crash occurred about 65 km (40 miles) from Tobruk, where the eastern parliament is based. The cause of the crash was not clear.
Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli and Ahmed Elumami; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Gareth Jones and Cynthia Osterman