The Malta Independent 15 December 2017, Friday

A day after Malta Summit, Libya says it intercepts 400 illegal migrants bound for Europe

Sunday, 5 February 2017, 08:00 Last update: about 11 months ago

Libya’s coast guard yesterday said it intercepted more than 400 African migrants attempting to reach Europe, just a day after EU leaders agreed on moves to curb mass migration from the country and after EU leaders dangled a €200 million carrot at the powers that be in Libya.

General Ayoub Qassem, the coast guard spokesman, said 431 people on inflatable crafts were rounded up between Thursday and yesterday at sea off the town of Sabratha, 70 kilometres west of the capital Tripoli.

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“The migrants are of different African nationalities and there are a great deal of women and children among them,” he said.

Italy’s coastguard said Thursday that more than 1,750 migrants had been rescued in the Mediterranean within 24 hours. 

Around 230 people have died en route to Europe since the start of 2017, according to the United Nations.

European Union leaders meeting Friday in Malta approved a new strategy to “break the business model” of traffickers who helped 181,000 mainly African migrants enter the EU via Libya and Italy last year.

The plan includes funding and training Libya’s coast guard to make it better able to intercept migrant boats and helping neighbouring countries to close routes into Libya, according to a draft statement seen by AFP.

Meanwhile, more migrants attempting to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean have been taken aboard rescue ships, aid organisations said.

Aid organisations yesterday said they rescued 300 people from waters in the Straits of Sicily after some 1,300 refugees and migrants were saved off the Libyan coast the day before, the Italian news agency Ansa reported.

The Italian coast guard confirmed the number of those rescued yesterday, saying they had been on board two rubber dinghies and a punt.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which was involved in several of the 13 separate operations on Friday, wrote on Twitter of an "absolute nightmare."

Another 1,300 people were rescued on Wednesday.

The sea crossing from Libya across the Mediterranean to Italy is currently the main route to Europe for migrants.  More than 5,000 are believed to have drowned attempting the crossing in 2016, with many consigned to flimsy and often overfilled boats run by people smugglers.

The latest rescues come a day after European Union leaders meeting in Malta adopted a number of plans to cooperate with Libya aimed at cutting the number of migrants attempting the sometimes perilous sea crossing from Africa to Europe.

Among other things, they agreed to give financial aid to the Libyan coast guard to help it intercept boats shortly after they set off. They also intend to set up "safe" refugee camps in Libya.

The proposed measures have met with criticism from rights groups, who say cooperation with Libya is dangerous for migrants because of gross human rights abuses, country's fragile security situation and record of violent conflict.

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