Libyan security forces have raided and violently broke up a protest sit-in by migrants outside a shuttered UN community centre in the capital of Tripoli, activists and migrants said.
The troops came overnight, smashed up the protest site and arrested hundreds, said activist Tarik Lamloum on Monday. Those detained were sent to a detention centre in the nearby town of Ain Zara. Others managed to flee from the raid, he said.
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Lamloum, who works with the local Belaady Organization for Human Rights, said at least one migrant community leader was shot during the raid.
The migrants, including women and children, had camped outside the centre in Tripoli since October, seeking protection following a massive crackdown on refugees and asylum seekers, and demanding better treatment at the hands of Libyan authorities.
Aiysha, a Sudanese migrant, was part of the sit-in protest along with her family since October. The mother of two said police beat and detained migrants. She was among those detained.
“We were caught off guard,” she said, speaking to The Associated Press by phone from the detention centre in Ain Zara. She gave only her first name, fearing for her safety. “They burned the tents, burned everything.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee said more than 600 people were detained in the raid.
“This is the culmination of a disastrous situation that has deteriorated” since the mass detention of migrants in October, said Dax Roque, the NRC’s Libya director.
Both groups urged Libyan authorities to immediately release those detained and provide them protection from further violence.
A government spokesman did not answer phone calls and messages seeking comment.
In the October crackdown, Libyan authorities rounded up more than 5,000 people, including hundreds of children and women – dozens of them pregnant, according to the United Nations.
Authorities at the time described it as a security operation against illegal migration and drug trafficking. The people detained were taken to overcrowded detention centres, prompting an outcry from the UN and human rights groups.
A NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, plunging oil-rich Libya into chaos, which has persisted ever since.
The North African country has emerged in recent years as the dominant transit point for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, hoping for a better life in Europe.
Traffickers have exploited the chaos and often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber or wooden boats that stall and founder along the perilous Central Mediterranean route. Thousands have drowned along the way, others have been intercepted and returned to Libya.
Those detained on land and others returned to shore are often taken to government-run detention centres, rife with torture, sexual assault and other abuses.
UN-commissioned investigators said in October that abuse and ill-treatment of migrants at sea, in detention centres and at the hands of traffickers in Libya amount to crimes against humanity.