UN: 51 migrants disembark in Libyan capital amid clashes

CAIRO (AP) — More than 50 migrants from Eritrea and Sudan disembarked in Libya’s capital Wednesday after spending hours on a coast guard vessel off Tripoli and were detained by local authorities, the U.N. migration agency said.

The U.N. mission in Libya, meanwhile, voiced concern about an escalation of fighting between rival forces over Tripoli in recent days, and the release of over 400 jail inmates in a western town recently taken by Tripoli-allied militias.

The migrants were handed over to Libya’s coast guard after being rescued Tuesday night by a commercial ship in Maltese territorial waters, the International Organization for Migration said. At least five bodies were also retrieved, and seven other migrants were reported missing, it said. The agency first put the number of survivors at 47, but later said there were 51.

The rescued migrants spent the night on the coast guard vessel before disembarking in Tripoli on Wednesday and being taken by local authorities to a detention center, the IOM said.

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Safa Mselhi, a spokesperson for the IOM, said the migrants are Eritreans and Sudanese, with eight women and three children among them.

Migrants seeking better lives in Europe often land in Libyan detention centers after perilous journeys at the mercy of traffickers who hold them for ransom from their families. These overcrowded facilities have the potential to become breeding grounds for the spread of the coronavirus and other diseases.

“We reiterate that people rescued at sea should not be returned to unsafe ports,” the U.N. migration agency said. “An alternative to disembarkation in Libya must be found urgently.”

Alarm Phone, a crisis hotline for migrants in need of rescue at sea, said the migrants were “illegally abducted” in Malta’s search-and-rescue zone, blaming Maltese authorities for the five deaths and the return of the others to “war, rape and torture” in Libya.

The Maltese government said in a statement Wednesday that its Rescue and Coordination Center coordinated the rescue of the migrants who entered Malta’s waters after a few days in Libyan waters.

It said the Maltese military carried out flights to pinpoint where the boat was located, and called nearby vessels to assist. The statement said the migrants were assisted by a commercial vessel. Later, a Libyan fishing vessel took the migrants on board, it said.

Malta said the European Union was aware of the boat as it was located in Libya’s waters. The EU flew its aircraft over the area but did not send any vessels to pick up the migrants, it said.

Last week, at least 277 migrants were not allowed to disembark in Tripoli for hours over safety concerns, the IOM said, citing Libyan officials without elaborating.

Those migrants, hungry and exhausted after 72 hours at sea, remained stuck on a crowded coast guard ship after being denied entry to Tripoli. Heavy bombardment of the port area at first prevented them from disembarking. They later were able to get off the vessel and around 200 of them were taken to detention centers, while the rest fled to urban areas, according to the IOM.

The fighting for Tripoli has been raging for over a year between military commander Khalifa Hifter’s forces, which are allied with a rival government based in eastern Libya, and an array of militias in the west loosely linked to the U.N.-supported authorities in Tripoli.

The fighting has escalated in recent weeks even as the U.N. appealed for a cease-fire so authorities could turn their focus to fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The virus could potentially devastate war-torn Libya, where a decade-long conflict has ravaged key infrastructure and created dire medical shortages.

Libya has confirmed 48 cases of the virus and one fatality.

The U.N. support mission in Libya said Wednesday it was concerned about attacks on civilians in the western town of Sorman by Tripoli-allied forces and the release of over 400 jail inmates there “without adequate legal proceedings or vetting.”

The Tripoli-based Justice Ministry confirmed Wednesday the inmates had since fled and opened an investigation. It urged Tripoli authorities to rearrest them.

The ministry also said it was alarmed by reports of “desecration of corpses, retribution, including looting, robberies and torching of public and private properties” in Sorman and other western towns taken by Tripoli-allied forces.

The U.N. support mission also condemned “indiscriminate bombardment” by Hifter forces of civilian neighborhoods in Tripoli.

Hifter’s forces, which control much of the country, launched the offensive on Tripoli last April. It has led to a military stalemate, killed hundreds of civilians and displaced more than 200,000 people, according to the U.N.

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed.

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