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Libyan officials say suspects in killing of US teacher held

November 22, 2018

FILE - This undated file photo provided by Omaima ElFaitori shows Ronald Thomas Smith II. Authorities in eastern Libya say they have taken into custody suspects in the 2013 killing of the U.S. chemistry teacher in Benghazi. The self-styled Libyan National Army said on social media on Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018 that “those who took part in this crime” — the killing of teacher Ronnie Smith — “are in custody.”(AP Photo/Omaima ElFaitori, File)

CAIRO (AP) — Authorities in eastern Libya said Thursday they have taken into custody suspects in the 2013 killing of a U.S. chemistry teacher in Benghazi, and that more suspects would be tried over the deadly attack a year earlier that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans there.

The announcement highlights efforts by Libya’s eastern forces, led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, to bring justice to hundreds of cases involving unlawful killings. Authorities have also come under pressure by families of the detained who are awaiting hearings.

“Those who took part in this crime” — the killing of teacher Ronnie Smith — “are in custody,” the self-styled Libyan National Army said on social media. The announcement was presented alongside details on dozens of other unsolved local cases, in hopes of stopping not-infrequent cycles of revenge killings.

Prosecutors have decided that no further information on the number of suspects or their identities would be made public as yet, the force’s communications office said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Smith taught at Benghazi’s International School. The U.S. State Department at the time said he was killed while jogging, while Libyan security officials said he was shot near the compound where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed by Islamic militants a year earlier.

Smith’s widow, Anita, or her lawyers would be welcome to attend the trial and see all its files, the army’s communication office said.

It added that Smith’s killing had been ordered by Libyan militant Ahmed Abu Khattala, now imprisoned in the United States serving a 22-year sentence for his role in the rampage that killed Stevens and the three other Americans on Sept. 11, 2012.

Abu Khattala was captured by U.S. commandos in Libya in 2014. Libyan authorities initially arrested dozens over the attack that killed Stevens, but they were later released.

Thursday’s statement from the LNA, the dominant force in eastern Libya, said several new suspects involved in that attack on the U.S. ambassador are now also in custody and on trial after confessing to various levels of complicity. The office did not elaborate.

Libya has been plagued with lawlessness since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. It is now governed by rival administrations in the east and west, and has become a haven for armed groups, including several from neighboring countries, which survive on looting and human trafficking.

The LNA is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia, and is led by strongman Hifter. It answers to the government based in eastern Libya, which is at odds with the U.N.-backed government based in the capital, Tripoli.

Libyan authorities are also struggling to process hundreds of cases involving unlawful killings and showcase their efforts to establish rule of law and institutions. They have also come under pressure by families of the detained, awaiting hearings.

Representatives of Libya’s quarrelling factions and of countries keen on stabilizing the North African nation this month agreed in Italy to hold a national conference in early 2019 to chart a path to stability and elections.

A more stable Libya would bolster hopes in the struggle against Islamic militants and human trafficking as thousands of illegal migrants cross the Mediterranean hoping to reach Europe’s southern shores.

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