Libyan commander hands over prominent militant to Egypt

In this frame grab from Egyptian State Television, a blindfolded Hisham el-Ashmawi, a prominent Egyptian militant is escorted by Egyptian military officers and placed in a vehicle after being taken off a military plane at an airport in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, May 29, 2019. El-Ashmawi was captured last October in the Libyan city of Derna, a longtime bastion of Islamic militants, by commander Khalifa Hifter's self-styled Libyan National Army. (Egyptian State Television via AP)

CAIRO — A prominent Egyptian militant wanted for scores of terror attacks in his country was handed over to Egypt on Wednesday by Libyan forces loyal to a commander pushing to take the capital of Tripoli and flown to Cairo.

Egyptian TV networks aired footage of a blindfolded Hisham el-Ashmawi, a former army officer turned militant, landing in Cairo and being taken off a military plane.

El-Ashmawi was captured last October in the Libyan city of Derna, a longtime bastion of Islamic militants, by commander Khalifa Hifter's self-styled Libyan National Army. Hifter's forces now are battling to take Tripoli, fighting militias allied to a U.N.-supported government based in the Libyan capital.

El-Ashmawi's return to Egypt came after a meeting Tuesday between Hifter and Egypt's intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, in the eastern city of Benghazi, which serves as Hifter's base.

The handover reflects the close ties between Egypt and Hifter, whose divisive campaign against Tripoli, which started in April, has so far killed over 560 people, mainly combatants but also civilians, and displaced tens of thousands.

Hifter's forces said on their Facebook page late Tuesday that el-Ashmawi was being returned to his home country. Another Egyptian militant, wanted for attacks in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, was also sent back, according to Egypt's state-run MENA news agency.

After his capture, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi had called for el-Ashmawi's extradition. "We want him so we can hold him accountable," el-Sissi said in TV comments at the time.

For years, el-Ashmawi has been a valuable target for Egyptian security forces eager to obtain valuable intelligence for its fight against militants.

El-Ashmawi's capture was the result of months of intelligence cooperation between Libyans in the LNA and the Egyptians. Egyptian officials took part in interrogating the militant while in Libya.

El-Ashmawi served in the Egyptian special forces before his dismissal in 2011 following a military trial in which he was accused of spreading radical Islamic ideas.

After his dismissal, he joined militants in the Sinai Peninsula and helped establish an al-Qaida affiliate that later pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. At that point, el-Ashmawi broke up with the newly established Islamic State affiliate, choosing to remain loyal to Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahri who succeeded Osama bin Laden as leader of al-Qaida's global terror network, according to a 2015 audio recording attributed el-Ashmawi.

Egyptian officials say el-Ashmawi subsequently travelled to Syria, the Gaza Strip and Libya to join various militant groups. Libya's turmoil in the wake of the 2011 toppling and later killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi had enabled the rise of Islamic militants there.

In Libya, el-Ashmawi set up the militant al-Mourabitoun group blamed by Egypt for several attacks in the Western Desert, near the Libyan border. The attacks include a 2017 ambush that killed nearly 30 Christian pilgrims travelling to a remote monastery and an attack on a military checkpoint that killed more than two dozen troops, according to court documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Egyptian authorities believe el-Ashmawi also was behind a 2013 attempted assassination in Cairo of Egypt's then-Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim.

He was sentenced to death in absentia by military courts in at least two cases but will have to be retried following his handover, according to Egyptian officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

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