Migrant agency says hundreds are fleeing Libya fighting

Wealth Peter, from Nigeria, reacts after being rescued from an overcrowded rubber boat in the Mediterranean Sea, by aid workers of the Spanish NGO Open Arms, international waters, off the Libyan coast, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Almost 1,000 people trying to flee Libya by boat have been intercepted and returned to the conflict-ravaged country by its coast guard during the first two weeks of the new year, the International Organization for Migration said Tuesday.

The IOM said at least 953 migrants, including 136 women and 85 children, were plucked from the Mediterranean Sea and that many were returned to the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

They were picked up by the Libyan coast guard, which is trained and funded by the European Union, and one commercial vessel. All were then taken to detention centers, the agency said in a statement.

Libya is run by rival authorities in the east and west vying for power. The east-based government is supported by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia. The western, Tripoli-based government receives aid from Turkey, Qatar and Italy.

The latest round of fighting on tyhe outskirts of Tripoli has threatened to plunge Libya into chaos rivaling the 2011 conflict that ousted and killed long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The IOM said no migrants were returned to Libya during the same two-week period in 2019, but that 23 bodies were recovered from the sea then.

The organization said migrants with whom its staff spoke mostly blamed fighting in and around Tripoli for the hike in departures for Europe.

“Measures to protect lives and guarantee the safety of these people are not in place” at locations in Libya where migrants are being dropped off, the agency said. “Alternative solutions that safeguard lives must be found to alleviate the suffering of thousands of men, women, and children who are held in inhumane conditions.”

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