Officials: Migrants return to bombed Libya detention center

Debris covers the ground and an emergency vehicle after an airstrike at a detention center in Tajoura, east of Tripoli in Libya, Wednesday, July 3, 2019. An airstrike hit the detention center for migrants early Wednesday, killing several. (AP Photo/Hazem Ahmed)

PARIS — A Libyan detention center where an airstrike killed more than 50 people two weeks ago is filling with migrants again, and work has resumed at a nearby weapons workshop, despite calls from the United Nations to empty the compound and others like it near the front-lines of the country's civil war.

As of Tuesday, around 200 migrants filled the Tajoura center, which was emptied after the airstrike July 3 that killed more than 50 migrants being held there, according to the U.N. refugee agency and two Libyan officials. The arrivals included a mix of people intercepted by the EU-funded Libyan coast guard, migrants transferred from overcrowded detention centers elsewhere, and people who fled Tajoura after the bombing only to be recaptured in the streets.

At the time, two men being held at the center run told The Associated Press they had been forced to clean and repair weapons in the civil war pitting the Tripoli-based government backed by the U.N. against forces led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who is allied with another government in the east. A third migrant who had been evacuated from the center told AP on Tuesday that the workshop was up and running again.

Hifter's self-styled Libyan National Army has been waging an offensive against rival militias around Tripoli since April, and the government blamed him for the airstrike. In a warning in May about Tajoura, the U.N. said it feared detention centers were being used to store weapons, effectively turning migrants into human shields. Both sides in the civil war have the coordinates for the detention centers, the U.N. has said.

At least 53 migrants died in the airstrike, half of the known civilian dead since Hifter's Tripoli offensive began in April.

Hifter's forces said they were targeting a nearby military site, not the detention center.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, and the international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres among others have called for the total shutdown of the detention centers, which are an integral part of the European Union's efforts to keep migration across the Mediterranean at bay.

The EU has spent hundreds of millions of euros in Libya, both equipping and training the Libyan coast guard and in efforts to improve the deplorable conditions of the detention centers.

Fathi Bashagha, interior minister of the Tripoli-based government, said earlier this month that his government was considering closing migrant detention centers and releasing all the migrants for their safety, but two other officials said dozens of migrants started arriving just a week after the airstrike and more were expected in coming days. Food, drinking water and medicine were limited, according to one of the officials. Both spoke on anonymity because they could not discuss the situation publicly.

The two confirmed the migrant's account that the weapons workshop was again operational.

Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for UNHCR, said the U.N. was concerned about the new arrivals at Tajoura and all 3,800 people who were at risk of being trapped in the fighting.

"We stand ready to support with the managed release of people," Yaxley said.


Magdy reported from Cairo.

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