About 140 East African migrants escaped from smugglers holding them captive near the Libyan town of Bani Walid earlier this week, according to a local source and a U.N. report.
The migrants, numbering about 140 and of Eritrean, Ethiopian and Somali nationalities, were being held by “notorious trafficker Mousa Diab”, according to a statement by the U.N. migration and refugee agencies.
Most sought refuge in a local mosque but about two dozen were brought to Bani Walid’s hospital with severe injuries, either from torture during captivity or efforts by smugglers to recapture them, the agencies said.
A Libyan source in Bani Walid said the smugglers opened fire on the migrants to try to prevent their escape. About 10 of them were injured, the source said, asking not to be named for fear of retribution.
The U.N. agencies said hundreds more were reportedly still being held by smugglers in the area.
Bani Walid, about 145 km (90 miles) south of Tripoli, has become a major hub for the smuggling and trafficking of migrants who arrive from sub-Saharan African countries trying to reach Libya’s Mediterranean coast.
From there, many seek to travel on towards Italy by boat, though crossings have been sharply reduced since last July when a major smuggling group in the Libyan coastal city of Sabratha struck a deal to halt departures under Italian pressure and was then forced out in clashes.
Libya’s EU-backed coastguard has also returned more migrants to Libya after intercepting them at sea.
Migrant community representatives have said smugglers are now operating further inland, especially around Bani Walid, and that migrants who are frequently tortured or raped in order to extort money from them or their families, are being held for longer.