By MAGGIE MICHAEL, CAIRO (AP): A boat carrying 86 migrants from Libya sank in the Mediterranean Sea and only three passengers are known to have survived the shipwreck the day after an airstrike on a Libyan detention center killed at least 44 migrants, the U.N. migration agency said Thursday.
The International Organization for Migration said the boat sank late Wednesday off the Tunisian city of Zarzis and 82 of the migrants who had been on board were missing. Fishermen pulled four men from the sinking boat, and one died overnight, Lorena Lando, the agency’s head in Tunisia, said.
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.