By HAMZA HENDAWI and MAGGIE MICHAEL of AP via Huff Post World Post
CAIRO (AP) — Egypt carried out airstrikes against Islamic State group targets in neighboring Libya on Monday and began a push for international military intervention in the chaotic North African state after extremists beheaded a group of Egyptian Christians.
The airstrikes bring Egypt overtly into Libya’s turmoil, showing Cairo’s alarm over the growing stronghold of radicals on its western border as it also fights a militant insurgency of Islamic State allies on its eastern flank in the Sinai Peninsula.
Libya is where the extremist group has built up its strongest presence outside Syria and Iraq, and the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is lobbying in Europe and the United States for a coordinated international response similar to the coalition air campaign in those countries.
“Leaving things in Libya as they are without decisive intervention to suppress these terror groups constitutes a clear danger to international peace and security,” Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said.
Egypt launched U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets from bases near its border several hours apart and struck targets in the eastern Libyan city of Darna, according to Egyptian and Libyan security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk the press.
Egypt’s military announced the first round of strikes on state radio — the first public acknowledgement of military action in post-Moammar Gadhafi Libya.
The military’s statement said weapons caches and training camps were destroyed “to avenge the bloodshed and to seek retribution from the killers.”
“Let those far and near know that Egyptians have a shield to protect and safeguard the security of the country and a sword that cuts off terrorism,” it said.
The strikes came hours after the Islamic State group issued a grisly video of the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians — mainly young men from impoverished families — who had travelled to Libya for work. They were kidnapped in two groups in December and January from the coastal city of Sirte.
In the video, the hostages are marched onto what is purported to be a Libyan beach before masked militants with knives carve off their heads. At least a dozen killings are visible, but it isn’t clear in the video whether all 21 were killed.
Inside the church in the tiny Christian-majority village of el-Aour, home to 13 of the 21, relatives wept Monday and shouted the names of the dead in shock.
Babawi Walham, his eyes swollen from crying and barely able to speak, recounted how he and his extended family saw news of the video’s release on Egyptian TV Sunday night. His brother, a 30-year-old plumber named Samuel, was one of the men in the video.
“Each one of us was filled with grief, some collapsed or passed out. Our life has been turned upside down,” he told The Associated Press. “I watched the video. I saw my brother. My heart stopped beating. I felt what he felt.”
“I want the bodies back. These are good people. These are martyrs,” he said.
With almost no state control in much of Libya, extremists loyal to the Islamic State have seized control Darna and the central city of Sirte and have built up a powerful presence in the capital Tripoli and the second-largest city Benghazi.
Libyan Interior Minister Omar al-Sinki has said some 400 militants from Yemen and Tunisia have joined up with Libyan militias vowing allegiance to the Islamic State group.
Without publicly acknowledging it, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates carried out airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias last year, according to U.S. officials. Egypt and the Gulf are backing Libya’s internationally recognized government, which was driven into the far east of Libya after Islamist militias took control of the capital, Tripoli.
The Foreign Ministry in Cairo called Monday for political and material support from the U.S.-led coalition staging airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. But Egyptian security officials said Cairo does not want to be drawn into a costly ground war, and for now, wants any foreign military intervention restricted to airstrikes.
In support of this campaign, they said, Egypt has been amassing intelligence on extremists in Libya in a joint effort with the Libyan armed forces and West European nations, including France.
“We will not fight there on the ground on behalf of anyone, but we will not allow the danger to come any closer to us,” said one Egyptian official, who claimed that intelligence recently gathered in Libya suggested advanced preparations by Islamic State militants to cross the border into Egypt. He did not elaborate.
Egypt is already battling an Islamist insurgency in the strategic Sinai Peninsula, where militants recently declared their allegiance to the Islamic State. Those fighters rely heavily on arms smuggled from Libya, which has slid into chaos since the 2011 uprising that toppled Gadhafi’s 41-year rule.
El-Sissi spoke with France’s president and Italy’s prime minister Monday about Libya, and sent his foreign minister, Sameh Shukri, to New York to consult with U.N. officials and Security Council members ahead of a terrorism conference opening Wednesday in Washington.
“What is happening in Libya is a threat to international peace and security,” el-Sissi said.
The idea of a wider intervention has gained traction with Italy, whose southern tip is less than 500 miles (800 kilometers) from the Libyan coast. One of the militants in the video of the beheaded Egyptians boasted the group plans to “conquer Rome.”
Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said in an interview published Sunday in the Il Messaggero daily that her country is ready to lead a coalition of countries — European and North African — to stop the militants’ advance.
“If in Afghanistan we sent 5,000 men, in a country like Libya which is much closer to home, and where the risk of deterioration is much more worrisome for Italy, our mission and commitment could be significant, even numerically,” she was quoted as saying.
Italy, she said, is willing to take a lead role “for geographic, economic and historic reasons,” but she stressed that so far such an intervention is only theoretical. Asked if ground troops are a possibility, she said it would depend on the scenario.
Michael reported from el-Aour, Egypt. Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in Rome, Maamoun Youssef in Cairo and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.