TRIPOLI, Libya -- Multiple suicide car bombings struck an eastern Libyan town, killing at least 45 people on Friday not far from a main base of the Libyan offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it came in retaliation for recent Egyptian airstrikes that avenged the beheading of 21 Christian hostages by Libyan Islamic State militants.
The massive bombings rocked the town of Qubba, which is under control of the country's internationally recognized government and about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Darna - a stronghold of Libya's Islamic State branch. In a statement posted on social networking sites, the group said two of the "Caliphate's knights" carried out the bombings, targeting what they described as a Libyan army operations room.
The deadliest bombing was carried by an attacker who rammed an explosives-packed ambulance into a gas station where motorists were lined up, army spokesman Mohammed Hegazi said.
"Imagine a car packed with a large amount of explosives striking a gas station; the explosion was huge and many of the injured are in very bad shape while the victims' bodies were torn into pieces," Hegazi said.
Two other bombers detonated vehicles next to the house of the parliament speaker and the nearby security headquarters in Qubba.
"They wanted to hit two birds with one stone," Hegazi said.
The death toll was expected to rise.
Two security officials say at least 45 people were killed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. Government Spokesman Mohammed Bazaza put the death toll at 42.
The Islamic State group, however, claimed there were only two suicide bombings; pictures posted by the group showed two masked suicide bombers dressed in black prior to the attacks. The discrepancy in the number of bombings could not immediately be reconciled. The elected Libyan government and parliament announced a seven-day mourning period.
The bombings underscored the turmoil that has consumed this North Africa country. They came a week after a video was released showing the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians at the hands of Libya's Islamic State group branch. The brutal slayings prompted Egyptian airstrikes on Darna and raised concerns that the extremist group has spread beyond the battlefields of Iraq and Syria and established a strategic foothold less than 500 miles from the southern tip of Italy.
Libya has become engulfed in violence and chaos four years after the country's 2011 uprising in which longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted and killed. The country is now split between two rival parliaments and governments; the elected and internationally recognized parliament has been forced to relocate to the eastern city of Tobruk near the Egyptian border because the capital, Tripoli, has been overrun by Islamic and tribal militias. Meanwhile an older pre-election parliament, supported by the militias, has remained in Tripoli and declared itself legitimate.
As the violence has escalated dramatically across the country since last summer, hundreds of thousands of Libyans have been displaced, diplomats have fled and embassies have been shuttered. The fighting has left entire cities and towns in ruins. Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, is also under the control of Islamic militias, with government forces fighting to reclaim it.
Libya's armed conflict took a dramatic turn for the worse late last year when militants loyal to the Islamic State group - which controls about a third of Iraq and Syria - took over at least two coastal cities.
Egypt has joined Libya's foreign minister in pressing for a United Nations Security Council resolution to lift a U.N. arms embargo on Libya and pave the way for international intervention, similar to the U.S.-led campaign in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State group.
But the United States and Britain, two of the most powerful Security Council members, rejected the call, saying Thursday that the chaotic country needs a national unity government first.
Amid more executions by ISIS, Americans increasingly see the group as a threat to the U.S., according to a new CBS News poll. Now, 65 percent of Americans view ISIS as a major threat - up from 58 percent in October - while another 18 percent view it as a minor threat. Majorities of Republicans (86 percent), Democrats (61 percent) and independents (57 percent) view ISIS as a major threat.
With concern about ISIS growing, support for the use of U.S. ground troops in the fight against ISIS has risen. For the first time, a majority of Americans (57 percent) favor the U.S. sending ground troops into Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. In October, Americans were divided (47 percent favored and 46 percent opposed), and in September these numbers were reversed (39 percent favored and 55 percent opposed).