51 migrants disembark in Libyan capital amid clashes: UN

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

The UN 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 on Tuesday night by a commercial ship in Maltese territorial waters, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) 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 centre, the IOM said.

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 UN 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 on 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 (EU) was aware of the boat as it was located in Libya’s waters, however, did not send any vessels to pick up the migrants, it said.