Libyan officials Wednesday allowed 51 migrants to disembark in the capital after spending hours on a coast guard vessel off Tripoli, the U.N. migration agency said.
The U.N. mission in Libya, meanwhile, voiced concerns about the escalation of fighting between rival forces around Tripoli in the past few days, and the reported release of over 400 prisoners in a western town recently taken by the Government of National Accord's (GNA) forces.
The migrants were rescued Tuesday night by a commercial ship from Malta's search-and-rescue zone and handed over to Libya’s coast guard, 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, then corrected itself and made it 51.
They had been stuck on a coast guard ship overnight before being allowed to disembark in Tripoli, where they were taken to a detention center by local authorities, the IOM said.
Safa Mselhi, a spokesperson for IOM, said the migrants were 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.
“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," it added.
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.
At least 277 migrants were not allowed to disembark in Tripoli for 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. The heavy bombardment of the port area prevented them from disembarking.
Meanwhile, the bodies of five people were recovered Wednesday off the coast of Libya after their boat capsized as they tried to cross the Mediterranean, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
It added that 51 other migrants, including women and children, had been picked up by a ship and transferred to the Libyan coastguard, which took them to detention centers.
On Sunday, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR had expressed alarm over the fate of two inflatable boats that had set sail from Libya for Italy, which along with Malta has closed its ports to migrants.
Years of chronic unrest have transformed Libya into both a destination and a transfer point for African migrants.
As the weather improves, increasing numbers try to reach European Union countries to ask for asylum, but hundreds of people die each year attempting the crossing.
The fighting for Tripoli has been raging for over a year between putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s forces and the U.N.-supported GNA in Tripoli.
The civil war has escalated in recent weeks as the U.N. appealed for a cease-fire so authorities could turn their focus to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, which could potentially devastate war-torn Libya, where a decade-long conflict has ravaged key infrastructure and created dire medical shortages.
Libya has confirmed 26 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 GNA forces and the release of over 400 jail inmates there “without adequate legal proceedings or vetting.”
It 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 the GNA.
The U.N. support mission also condemned “indiscriminate bombardment” by Haftar forces of civilian neighborhoods in Tripoli.
Haftar'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.