UK
16/02/2015 09:17 GMT | Updated 16/02/2015 09:59 GMT

Egypt's Desperate Coptic Christians Still Seeking Work In Libya, Despite ISIS Beheadings

Egyptian Coptic Christians are still leaving behind their families to risk beheadings at the hands of Islamic State militants in Libya, because they are so desperate for work, mourning villagers have said

Thirteen of the 21 Egyptians murdered by the Islamic State's faction in Libya came from a single place, Al-Our, Minya, in central Egypt, the BBC reported. Locals, who were attending memorial services in local churches, told reporters that some had lost up to five members of the same family.

Dressed in orange overalls, the hostages are seen in the footage, released yesterday, being forced to the ground before they are beheaded.The captives were seized in December and January from the eastern coastal town of Sirte, which is now largely held by Islamist fighters.

Locals told the broadcaster that despite the kidnappings of almost two dozen of their numbers, and their subsequent gruesome beheadings, more and more young men were still leaving to seek work in Libya, mostly in construction work.

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A Coptic clergyman shows a picture of a man whom he says is one of the Egyptian Coptic Christians purportedly murdered by Islamic State

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A relative of one of the Egyptian Coptic Christians purportedly murdered by Islamic State

"Many say they still have relatives working there, and that villagers will continue to go there in search of work," the BBC's Orla Guerin reported.

One family member told Radio France International one of the men had left his wife and newborn baby to earn money in Libya to feed his family, even though he knew that Coptic Christians were the new favourite targets of Islamic State.

The first group of Copts were abducted late last year when militants set up a false checkpoint outside the Libyan city of Sirte, the birthplace of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. That kidnapping was followed just days later by a raid on a residential compound in the same city, where Christians and Muslim workers were separated into two groups, with the Christians dragged away, handcuffed together.

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Egyptian Coptic Christians attend a memorial ceremony for relatives purportedly murdered by Islamic State

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Relatives of Egyptian Coptic Christians purportedly murdered by Islamic State

Egypt launched air strikes on IS targets in Libya today in retaliation for the beheadings. Experts have warned that the Islamic State-aligned group could quickly establish a ruling presence in the country following the "disappearance of legitimate authority".

Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya, said political turmoil has allowed armed gangs, such as those who murdered Egyptian hostages, to flourish. "What the Egyptian strikes have brought in is something that everybody knew about already - that there is a small core of Islamists in eastern Libya who are ruthless and who some weeks ago pledged allegiance to Islamic State," he said.

Describing the background to the latest developments, he said: "Libya has been off the international radar, to some extent due to the multiplicity of other crises and the sense that the options ... are very limited. There has been more hand wringing than active involvement with the search for a solution."

However, he stressed that the scale of IS's presence appears to be "limited" and played down the possibility of the militant group building a power base similar to those it established in Syria and Iraq.

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A still from the graphic video released by the Libyan group

A Downing Street spokeswoman said the UK was "discussing with Egypt at the moment exactly what action they are taking".

Asked whether Britain could offer Cairo military support, she said: "Our focus is on the political solution and there are no discussions beyond that at the moment in Government."

The spokeswoman said IS's murder of Egyptian nationals "underlines in Libya the importance of finding a political solution. The Prime Minister has appointed a special envoy on Libya to work with UN partners and representatives in Libya to work on a way forward on that".

David Cameron was today discussing action against Islamist extremists with the Sultan of Brunei during talks at his country residence Chequers. "It is absolutely clear that what we need to be doing around the world is working with other countries to tackle this growing threat from Islamist extremists and their poisonous ideology wherever we find it," said the spokeswoman.

Asked whether the weekend's events made Cameron regret his decision to commit UK military forces in Libya in 2011, the Number 10 spokeswoman said: "This was a country where people were being oppressed by a dictator, where they were not able to pursue their aspirations and have their voice heard for a democratic and peaceful Libya. The actions we took there and the decision to intervene was an international one."