Libyan forces capture fugitive Egyptian militant

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — The self-styled Libyan National Army says it captured one of Egypt’s most wanted militants Monday in a raid in an eastern Libyan town long known to be a stronghold of radical Islamists.

In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the LNA, which is allied with authorities in eastern Libya, said Hisham el-Ashmawi was captured in an “operation” in Derna.

A Twitter account run by LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mosmari published a mugshot of el-Ashmawi with a bloodied face. The image matches photos of el-Ashmawi widely used by Egyptian media. Another photo posted on social media shows him receiving medical aid.

A third photo purportedly showed el-Ashmawi’s Egyptian army ID, which bore a photo of him in uniform with the rank of major.

The Libyan National Army is led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who is backed by Egypt, but it was not immediately clear whether el-Ashmawi’s capture was a joint operation. Libya is split between rival governments in the east and in the capital, Tripoli, each of which is backed by an array of militias.

The LNA drove militants out of Derna earlier this year, but pockets of resistance remain in the Mediterranean coastal city. Egypt has in the past launched airstrikes in Derna on the grounds that militants there are linked to attacks in Egypt.

There has been no word from Egypt on the militant’s capture, which would mark a major victory against Islamic extremists waging an insurgency that is centered in the north of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Egypt is likely to seek his extradition to stand trial.

Later on Monday, the LNA said el-Ashmawi was wearing an explosives belt at the time of his capture, but did not have time to detonate it.

El-Ashmawi is a former Egyptian army officer who served in the special forces before his dismissal in 2011. His dismissal followed a military trial in which he was accused of spreading radical Islamic ideas.

According to Egyptian authorities, he is believed to have been behind a 2013 assassination attempt against Egypt’s then-Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim and several deadly ambushes of security forces in Egypt’s Western Desert, near the Libyan border.

A military court sentenced him to death last year in absentia following his conviction on terror charges.

Egyptian authorities believe el-Ashmawi, who is 40, made his way to Syria in 2013, where he briefly joined militants fighting forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. He is also believed to have joined the militants in Sinai, who are now led by a local branch of the Islamic State group.

In an audio recording released in 2015 that is believed to be authentic, el-Ashmawi allied himself with the Islamic State group’s rival, al-Qaida, led by Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahri.

Egyptian military officials at the time said el-Ashmawi was a suspect in the July 11, 2015 bombing outside the Italian Consulate in Cairo, which killed a bystander. He is also named as a suspect in the killing of Egypt’s chief prosecutor that year, the first successful assassination since the 1981 killing of President Anwar Sadat. Sadat’s assassins were military officers who became militants.

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