CAIRO – The Islamic State group's offshoot in Libya has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly suicide bombings Friday that killed at least 45 and rocked an eastern town under the control of the country's elected government.
The group said the attacks were in retaliation for the killing of Muslims in the Islamic militant stronghold of Darna. Egyptian warplanes conducted multiple airstrikes in Darna after militants linked to the Islamic State group beheaded 21 Egyptian Christian hostages.
The attack also targeted the forces of army Gen. Khalifa Hifter -- who has been leading an offensive against Islamic militias on behalf of the internationally recognized government.
The group's statement said two of the "Caliphate's knights" carried out suicide bombings targeting what they described as one of Gen. Hifter's operations rooms.
The bombings underscored the utter turmoil this North Africa country has sunk into. It came a week after a video showed the beheadings of 21 abducted Egyptian Coptic Christians at the hands of Libya's branch of the Islamic State group. The brutal slayings drew Egyptian airstrikes on IS positions in Libya and raised concerns that the extremist group has spread beyond the battlefields of Iraq and Syria and established a strategic foothold closer to European shores.
Libyan army spokesman Mohammed Hegazi said that suspected Islamic militants bombed a gas station packed with motorists in the town of Qubba, about 19 miles from the city of Darna, a stronghold of Libya's Islamic State offshoot.
The motorists had lined up to fill their tanks at the station, which is located next to the town's security headquarters, Hegazi told The Associated Press. Scores of people were also wounded in the attack, he said.
However, a security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that the gas station blast was only one in a string of attacks in Qubba on Friday. He said one other attack targeted the home of Parliament Speaker Ageila Saleh, who represents the elected government, based in eastern Libya.
A third attack targeted the security headquarters building itself, said the official, who also gave a different casualty figure, putting the total death toll at around 25. He said most died in the gas station bombing.
Conflicting tolls are common in the aftermath of large attacks. Hospital officials and others in Qubba could not immediately be reached for comment.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which Hegazi said bore the hallmarks of Islamic militants who have battled the army for months in and around the eastern city of Benghazi.
Saleh, the parliament speaker, announced a seven-day mourning period in his hometown, and insisted that Friday's bombing in Qubba was revenge for the Egyptian airstrikes.
Libya has been engulfed in violence and chaos four years since longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi's ouster and death. The country is now split between two rival parliaments and governments. One is based in the capital, Tripoli, and is backed by militias allied with Islamist factions, while the other is the elected parliament, which was forced to relocate and hold sessions in the far eastern city of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border.
As the violence escalated dramatically in eastern and western Libya since the summer, hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been displaced, diplomats have fled and embassies have been shuttered. The fighting has also left entire cities and towns in ruins.
Libya's armed conflict then took a turn for the worse, when Islamic State affiliates gradually seized a large swath of land, imposing control over at least two coastline cities, and carrying out suicide attacks in Tripoli and Benghazi, the country's second-largest city.
In response to the beheadings of the 21 Copts, Egypt launched extensive airstrikes early this week, targeting what it said were Islamic State's training camps and weapon caches in the eastern city of Darna. However, there were reports of civilians, including children, accidentally killed in the crossfire surrounding the airstrikes, which has angered the local population.
Egypt has joined Libya's foreign minister in pressing for a U.N. Security Council resolution to lift a U.N. arms embargo on Libya and pave way for international intervention, similar to the U.S.-led campaign in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State.
But the United States and Britain, two of the most powerful Security Council members, rejected the call, saying Thursday that the chaotic country needs a national unity government first.