Even as authorities in Cairo said they were investigating the abduction of seven Egyptian Christians in Libya, reports emerged Saturday of more than a dozen other such kidnappings carried out during the day by suspected Islamic militants.
Despite the intensifying dangers as Libya splinters into warring fiefdoms, many Egyptians continue to seek work in the neighboring North African nation, including large numbers of Coptic Christians from southern Egypt or the Nile Delta.
But as Islamic militants tighten their grip on some parts of Libya, Christians have been specifically singled out as targets. They include a Coptic couple and their daughter who were killed last month by unidentified gunmen who burst into their home in the city of Surt, 220 miles southeast of the capital, Tripoli.
The slayings sent shock waves through Egypt’s Coptic community, which will be observing Eastern rite Christmas in the coming week.
Saturday’s reported kidnappings also took place in Surt, where Islamist militias hold sway. An eyewitness, Hanna Aziz, told the Associated Press that attackers forced their way into a residential building before dawn and systematically hunted down Christians, separating out Muslim workers also living there. The screaming captives were handcuffed and dragged away, she said.
A Coptic priest in the town of Samalout in southern Egypt, where the kidnapping victims were from, confirmed the abduction, the AP reported.
Egypt said it was already investigating the report of seven Copts being abducted days earlier in Surt. The victims were reportedly seized by gunmen at a checkpoint as they tried to flee the city.
As chaos has mounted in Libya in the wake of its 2011 uprising, Coptic Christians have found themselves in particular peril. In February, seven were shot dead execution-style in the eastern Libya city of Benghazi.
Egyptian authorities say it has been difficult to ensure the safety of Egyptian nationals because Libya has competing governments, one based in Tripoli and the other, which is internationally recognized, based in the eastern town of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border. Egypt -- whose ambassador himself was abducted last year -- no longer has an embassy in Tripoli.
The wave of attacks against Copts, indigenous Christians who make up about 10% of Egypt’s population, came as battling militias in Libya tried to gain an advantage in a fierce confrontation that has largely devolved into a stalemate.
Forces loyal to the Tobruk government staged airstrikes Saturday on Misurata, home base for fighters affiliated with the administration in Tripoli, both sides of the conflict reported.
The two sides are also fighting for control of Libya’s largest oil terminal, at As Sidr, where blazing oil tanks have set up enormous plumes of smoke that are visible from outer space. Libya’s oil production has fallen dramatically as rival armed groups set their sights on the country’s energy wealth.
Libya’s militias, fractured along regional and tribal lines and running the spectrum from Islamist to secular, fought four years ago with the common purpose of ousting dictator Moammar Kadafi, but swiftly turned on one another when he was out of the way. United Nations-brokered peace efforts have yielded no signs of conciliation.
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