International charity ships and Libya’s coastguard and picked up several hundred migrants as smugglers taking advantage of calm seas launched a flurry of boats to Italy.
Libyan coastguard vessels intercepted three migrant boats, the first a broken down inflatable dinghy with 125 people on board off Zawiya, west of Tripoli, said Ayoub Qassem, coastguard spokesman.
The second boat was turned back off Garabulli, east of Tripoli, and had 112 people on board, while a third boat with 98 migrants on board was intercepted off Abu Kamash, near Libya’s border with Tunisia.
Another boat with more than 100 migrants on board made it as far as the Aquarius rescue ship about 21 miles from the coast west of Tripoli. The ship was preparing to transfer the migrants to Italy.
Rescuers on board the Aquarius said the migrant boat was on the verge of sinking when it reached them. More than half the migrants were Nigerians, with the rest from other sub-Saharan African countries as well as two Palestinians.
“All but one of the five floats holding the boat up was either completely deflated or deflating and there were about 120 people inside, so a very, very precarious condition,” said rescuer, Max Avis.
One Palestinian was thrown into the water by other migrants after trying to convince them they would be better off being saved by a nearby Libyan coastguard boat than drowning, rescuers said.
Libya is the main departure point for migrants attempting to reach Europe by sea. More than 600,000 migrants crossed the central Mediterranean to Italy over the past four years as people smugglers take advantage of a security vacuum in Libya. Thousands are believed to have perished at sea.
Since last summer the rate of departure dropped after smugglers in Sabratha struck a deal with the Tripoli government to halt activities and were then forced from the town by rival armed groups.
Libya’s EU-backed coastguard stepped up interceptions, cutting migrant boats off before they can reach international vessels that would bring them to Europe.
Two other groups of migrants were transferred to the Aquarius on Saturday, including 62 picked up by a merchant ship in offshore oil fields and 106 others from another charity vessel.
The coastguard in Zuwara, a former Libyan smuggling hub, said they foiled a departure during the night and arrested some migrants while others escaped with smugglers.
The coastguard posted pictures of detained sub-Saharan African migrants sitting in an inflatable rubber boat on the beach in the dark.