Security forces in Libya have freed 120 people believed to be migrants who were held captive and tortured by human traffickers in the northwestern town of Bani Walid, the army said.
The migrants and refugees, mostly Egyptians, were released on Wednesday after “a morning raid on the dens of human traffickers,” the elite 444th combat brigade said in a statement. Their captors had subjected them to “torture and extortion”, it added, citing testimonies from those released. The brigade also carried out an operation against smugglers last week in Bani Walid, a centre for human trafficking on the edge of the desert about 170 kilometres (105 miles) southeast of the capital, Tripoli.
Six hideouts were discovered in that operation and 70 migrants and refugees of different nationalities were released, it said, adding that “one of the country’s most notorious traffickers was detained along with other foreign criminals who were kidnapping, killing and torturing their victims”. Libya has become the main transit point for people hoping to reach Europe, after the North African country plunged into a bloody conflict following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Smugglers often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that are unable to survive the journey across the Mediterranean Sea. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 20,000 people have died in the Mediterranean since 2014.
More than 17,000 of those have been in the central Mediterranean, which is described by the UN as the most dangerous migration route in the world. International agencies have also denounced the return to Libya of people intercepted at sea due to the chaotic situation in the country and poor conditions in detention centres. Since February 2017, at least 36,000 people have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and returned to the North African country, UN figures show.