Libyan guards at a detention center in Tripoli’s Tajoura neighborhood this week shot at refugees and migrants trying to flee airstrikes that the internationally recognized government has blamed on forces loyal to renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the United Nations revealed.
The U.N.-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) is headquartered in the Libyan capital of Tripoli and in charge of the region.
According to a report issued Wednesday by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), two airstrikes on Tuesday night struck an unoccupied garage and a hangar containing around 120 refugees and migrants, respectively, killing 53, including six children, and injuring 130 others.
“There are reports that following the first impact, some refugees and migrants were fired upon by guards as they tried to escape,” OCHA revealed.
The GNA’s interior ministry denied OCHA’s finding, Reuters noted.
The GNA’s Interior Minister Fathi Ali Bashagha indicated that the U.N.-backed government is weighing shutting down all detention centers holding migrants and releasing the inmates.
Of the over 600 detainees held at the Tajoura facility at the time of the attack, around “300 migrants were still there,” Safa Msehli, the communications director for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency on Thursday.
Reuters pointed out:
Thousands are held alone in centers in Tripoli, the capital. Libya is one of the main departure points for African migrants fleeing poverty and war to reach Italy by boat, but many are intercepted at sea and brought back by the Libyan coast guard, with the approval of the European Union.
GNA officials accused warlord Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), fighting on behalf of the breakaway government based in eastern Libya’s Tobruk region, of carrying out the airstrikes on Tuesday night.
On Wednesday, the GNA lambasted “war criminal Khalifa Haftar,” holding him responsible for what it described as a “heinous crime,” referring to the attack on the migrant center, AFP reported.
Ghassan Salame, the U.N. envoy to Libya, said the attack on the detention center “could constitute a war crime.”
In April, Haftar and his eastern forces launched an offensive to take Tripoli from the GNA.
Before the latest airstrikes, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that fighting in Tripoli has already killed 739 people and injured 4,407.
Referring to the airstrikes on the detention center this week, OCHA noted:
The number of civilian casualties caused by the conflict has almost doubled as the result of this single attack. Humanitarian actors have repeatedly warned that the return of refugees and migrants to Libyan shores, and their arbitrary detention in unsafe areas, placed these vulnerable men, women, and children at great risk of exactly the type of tragedy which occurred last night.
The U.N. humanitarian affairs office believes nearly 3,800 refugees and migrants currently held in Libyan detention facilities in and around combat zones are “at imminent risk, as they are held against their will and have no means of seeking safety on their own.”
“In addition to the threat posed by armed conflict, conditions in detention centers are characterized by severe overcrowding, insufficient access to health care, food, clean water, and sanitation facilities,” OCHA adds.
Charlie Yaxley, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), indicated that Tuesday’s deadly incident could have been avoided, telling AFP that the agency asked for the facility to be evacuated a few weeks ago after “a near miss from a similar airstrike.”
OCHA noted that an airstrike targeting GNA forces at a nearby base on May 7 left two detainees held at the Tajoura facility injured.
“Despite this, authorities have continued to transfer refugees and migrants to Tajoura,” the U.N. agency noted.
“On May 12, 108 refugees and migrants picked up at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard were disembarked and transferred to the Tajoura detention center, the report added,” Reuters reported.