Libyan authorities allegedly forcibly disembarked at least 79 migrants who refused to leave a cargo ship that rescued them before docking in a port west of Tripoli, rights groups and a coast guard commander said.
The Panama-flagged “Nivin” vehicle carrier rescued them and other migrants off the Libyan coast 10 days ago as their boat began sinking and brought them to Misrata.
Once there, 14 disembarked willingly but, in the first documented case of its kind, the other 92 refused to leave.
“A joint force raided the cargo ship and used rubber bullets and tear gas to force them off the ship,” commander of central region coastguard, Tawfiq Esskair, told Reuters, putting the number at more than 90.
Some were injured during the disembarkation but were now “in good condition” after treatment in hospital and all were at a detention centre in the city, he said.
The operation was carried out under the auspices of Libya’s attorney general, he added.
The United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) put the number of disembarked migrants at 79.
The UN said in a statement “the humanitarian community is saddened by the turn of events”.
Using stronger words, HRW called for an investigation into whether “unlawful force” was used.
“This is the worst possible conclusion to the desperate plea of people on board the Nivin to avoid inhuman detention in Libya,” Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Diplomats from some migrants’ countries of origin including Sudan and Somalia tried to negotiate with migrants to leave the ship, which was transporting cars.
Libya’s western coast is a main departure point for migrants fleeing wars and poverty and hoping for new lives in Europe.
Since last year, pressure from Italy – which was bearing the brunt of arrivals -disrupted coastal smuggling networks and the withdrawal of charity rescue ships.