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Humanitarian group rescues 54 migrants at sea after deadly Libya airstrike

Debris covers the ground and an emergency vehicle after an airstrike at a detention center in Tajoura, east of Tripoli in Libya, Wednesday, July 3, 2019. An airstrike hit the detention center for migrants early Wednesday.

HAZEM AHMED/AP

By MAGGIE MICHAEL | Associated Press | Published: July 4, 2019

CAIRO — An Italian humanitarian group says its boat rescued 54 migrants north of Libya, where an airstrike on a detention center killed at least 44 migrants this week.

Beppe Caccia, a coordinator for Mediterranea Saving Humans, said the crew of the Alex performed the rescue Thursday after Italian authorities told them to stand down and let the Libyan coast guard handle it.

Groups that operate rescue ships on the Mediterranean Sea say neither the European Union nor the United Nations consider Libya a safe port.

Earlier Thursday, the U.N. migration agency reported that a boat from Libya carrying 86 migrants sank late Wednesday and left only three survivors. The airstrike on a detention center near Tripoli killed at least 44 other migrants a day earlier.

Caccia said: "We're happy to have pulled them out of the hell that is Libya."

A Tunisian Red Crescent volunteer says the boat was carrying more than double its capacity when it sank — 86 people instead of 40.

Chamseddine Merzoug said in an interview on Thursday via Skype that the rubber boat carrying Africans of various nationalities had taken off from Zuwara, in Libya. He was citing information from the survivors.

He said that "overcapacity of the boat" was the cause of the sinking.

Merzoug said one survivor, from Ivory Coast, was treated in intensive care, "but he died today at 11 a.m."

The United Nations and aid groups have blamed the airstrike tragedy in part on the European Union's policy of partnering with Libyan militias to prevent migrants from trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

Critics of the EU's program say it leaves migrants at the mercy of brutal traffickers or confined in detention facilities near front lines, often without adequate food and water. Migrants who survived late Tuesday's airstrike said they were conscripted by a local militia to work in a weapons workshop.

The decision to store weapons at the facility in Tajoura, to the east of Tripoli, may have made it a target for the self-styled Libyan National Army, which is at war with an array of militias allied with a weak, U.N.-recognized government in the capital.

The Tripoli government has blamed the strike, which wounded more than 130, on the LNA and its foreign backers. The LNA, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, says it targeted a nearby militia position but denies striking the hangar where the migrants were being held.

Hifter, whose forces control much of eastern and southern Libya, has received aid from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Around 6,000 migrants, most from elsewhere in Africa, are being held in Libya's detention centers after being intercepted by the EU-funded coast guard. In Tajoura, hundreds of migrants are held in several hangars next to what appears to be a weapon cache.

Two migrants told The Associated Press that for months they were sent day and night to the workshop inside the detention center.

"We clean the anti-aircraft guns. I saw a large amount of rockets and missiles too," said a young migrant who has been held at Tajoura for nearly two years.

Another migrant recounted a nearly two-year odyssey in which he fled war in his native country and was passed from one trafficker to another until he reached the Libyan coast. He boarded a boat that was intercepted by the coast guard, which later transferred him to Tajoura, where he was wounded in Wednesday's airstrike.

"I fled from the war to come to this hell of Libya," he said. "My days are dark."

The migrants requested that their names and nationalities not be published, fearing reprisal.

Many of those who died in the attack were crushed under debris as they slept. Pictures shared by the migrants show the hangar reduced to a pile of rubble littered with body parts. More than 48 hours after the strike, relief workers were still pulling bodies from the rubble while the wounded lay on bloody mattresses in a courtyard, receiving medical aid.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid said Thursday that it received reports of guards firing on the migrants as they tried to flee after the airstrikes. A migrant told the AP it was not clear if the guards fired at the migrants or in the air.

Despite the international outrage following the airstrike, aid groups said there are no plans to evacuate the migrants and that nowhere in Tripoli is safe.

"We are not aware of plans to relocate the migrants that remain in Tajoura," said Safa Mshli, an International Organization for Migration spokeswoman. "Migrants intercepted or rescued at sea should not be returned to Libya, where they will face the same inhumane conditions."

Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

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