Libyan coastguard intercepts 1,131 asylum-seekers

At least 1,131 asylum-seekers from various sub-Saharan countries intercepted by Libya coastguard over the course of a week

At least 1,131 asylum-seekers were intercepted by Libya’s coast guard bear the western city of Sabratha over the course of a week, a spokesman said.

Ayoub Qassem said 431 migrants had been intercepted on four inflatable boats off Sabratha's coast on Thursday and some 700 had been picked up on January 27 from three wooden vessels in the same area.

"The illegal migrants are from various sub-Saharan countries and include a big number of women and children," Qassem said of those intercepted on Thursday.

Those intercepted on Jan. 27 also included migrants from Syria, Tunisia, Libya and the Palestinian territories, he said, and smugglers had attempted to block the coast guards from taking those migrants from their boats.

“Smugglers had tried to foil the process of arrest by opening fire on our coast guards but the coast guards fired back and that forced the smugglers to withdraw,” he said.

The interception by Libya’s coast guard comes just days after the Italian navy rescued 1,400 people off the coast of the war-torn country. On Friday, Italy and Libya signed a memorandum of understanding to combat illegal migration and human trafficking in the Mediterranean. The agreement, which the European Union is supporting, is aimed at stemming the migratory flows from the country.

However, despite Prime Minister Joseph Muscat describing the deal as “the first real pragmatic step” to stem the migratory flows, aid groups criticised the move saying such plans exposed migrants to further risks and abuses in a country on the brink of being a failed state and with dire human rights conditions.

Libya has become the main point of departure for migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean by boat to Europe since a route between Turkey and Greece was largely closed off last year.

People smugglers generally operate with impunity, launching migrants in flimsy vessels that sometimes break down or sink before they are spotted by rescue boats operated by an EU naval mission and by non-government organizations. More than 4,500 died attempting the crossing last year.

Libya's coastguard sends migrants back to detention centres that rights groups have criticized for their inhumane conditions and widespread abuses.