Libya’s eastern forces arrest top Egyptian al-Qaeda fighter

An Egyptian former military officer accused of being behind a string of high-profile attacks in Egypt has been apprehended by Libya’s eastern forces, a Libyan military spokesperson said.

Hesham Ashmawi was arrested on Sunday in Libya’s eastern city of Derna – located some 300 kilometres west of the Egyptian border with Libya – Ahmed al-Mesmari, a spokesman for the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) said on Monday.

The LNA published a picture of Ashmawi with blood on his face, being examined before having bandages applied. It also posted a photo appearing to show his Egyptian military identity card.

“The terrorist Ashmawy was arrested in the Al-Maghar neighbourhood in the city of Derna and was wearing an explosive vest but was unable to detonate it,” the LNA said.

It said he would probably be handed over to Egypt after Libyan security officials had completed an investigation.

Al-Mismari added that the family of another suspected fighter, also Egyptian, was being detained alongside Ashmawi.

In December, an Egyptian military court sentenced Ashmawi and nine other suspected fighters to death in absentia for masterminding a string of attacks, including the 2014 targeting of a security checkpoint in Egypt’s Western Desert that killed 22 soldiers.

Egyptian authorities say Ashmawi heads the Ansar al-Islam network, which they link to al-Qaeda and which they accuse of an assassination attempt on a former interior minister in 2013.

Renegade General Khalifa Haftar, the Egypt-backed commander of the LNA, said in June that his forces captured the eastern port city of Derna from a coalition of rival armed groups known as the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council.

Egypt has for years been battling an armed anti-government campaign in the rugged and thinly populated Sinai peninsula and elsewhere.

Attacks against the government gained pace after the military overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in mid-2013.

Egypt launched a comprehensive military operation targeting the armed groups in February.

Over the years, most attacks have targeted soldiers and police, but civilians have also been killed. Hundreds of people have died in the conflict so far.

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