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Official: ISIS attacks Libyan hospital, kidnaps and then frees 20 foreigners

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(CNN) — ISIS militants attacked a Libyan hospital and kidnapped 20 medical workers, a hospital official said — the latest example of the Islamist extremist group’s reach into North Africa.

About 30 gunmen tied to the group calling itself the Islamic State stormed Ibn Sina Hospital in Sirte on Monday while a bus was waiting to take the workers to Tripoli, Libya’s capital.

The medical workers were later released and sent back to their homes near the medical facility, a hospital official said Tuesday. But they can’t go far, with ISIS militants ordering them not to leave Sirte, according to the official.

The health workers at the center of this ordeal aren’t Libyan. Most are from the Philippines, with others from Ukraine, India and Serbia.

Their kidnappings came days after people of Filipino, Austrian, Czech, Ghanaian and Bangladeshi descent were taken from Libya’s Al-Ghani oil field, an operation that Libya’s internationally recognized government blamed on “ISIS militias.”

The abductions are more evidence of the turmoil Libya has experienced since 2011, the start of an uprising against longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Sirte was Gadhafi’s hometown, where he was killed, and where his loyalists held out the longest. In the years since, Sirte has become a home to ISIS.

Official: ISIS didn’t want medical workers to leave

The coastal city, halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi, is where terrorists kidnapped 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt in separate incidents in December and January.

That mass abduction was followed by mass slaughter — one that, in ISIS’ distinctive, depraved style, was videotaped and disseminated as propaganda, showing jihadists standing behind their orange-clad, handcuffed victims and then beheading them.

“The sea you have hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in,” a masked English-speaking jihadi said on the video, “we swear to Allah, we will mix it with your blood.”

Like the Egyptians, the medical workers kidnapped Monday are foreigners, having come to Sirte to work.

They also have skills that could help ISIS.

The Ibn Sina Hospital official believes the extremist group went after the workers — who’d been trying to flee Sirte’s precarious security situation — because they make up the only medical team there and might be needed to treat ISIS militants.

ISIS a growing threat in Libya, elsewhere in Africa

The large-scale kidnapping illustrates how ISIS has become a disruptive force in Africa.

The group’s main foothold is in Iraq and Syria, where it has ruthlessly conquered territory and threatened to take more despite efforts by local governments and a U.S.-led air campaign.

ISIS branched out into Libya last year, with CNN reporting in November that fighters loyal to the group had complete control of Derna, a city of about 100,000 near the Egyptian border.

Militants who’ve pledged allegiance to ISIS also have made their mark in points westward, forming chapters in cities including Sirte, Benghazi and Tripoli, according to Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist now involved in counterterrorism as head of the Quilliam Foundation.

Besides its actions in Derna and Sirte, ISIS’ Libyan branch claimed responsibility for a January attack on a luxury hotel in Tripoli that killed 10 people, one of them American David Berry.

But ISIS isn’t just active in Libya. Earlier this month, Boko Haram — another Islamist extremist group with its own reputation for mass abductions and craven brutality — pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This bond gives ISIS a gateway to West Africa and specifically to Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and Boko Haram’s home.

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