DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- At least 16 migrants trying to reach Europe drowned in the Mediterranean Sea when their small dinghy capsized off the coast of Libya, the U.N. migration agency reported Friday, the latest shipwreck to underscore the deadly risks facing those who flee the war-afflicted North African country.
Three dead bodies were found floating in the water, including one Syrian man and woman, and at least 13 other migrants were missing and presumed drowned, the IOM said.
The boat had set off from the town of Zliten, east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, late on Wednesday.
The Libyan Coast Guard said that it had ordered the rescue, and warned the death toll could rise further as search teams scoured the area for more victims.
“So many boats are leaving these days, but autumn is a very difficult season,” said Commodore Masoud Abdal Samad. “When it gets windy, it's deadly. It changes in an instant."
In the years since the 2011 uprising that ousted and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, war-torn Libya has emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants hoping to get to Europe from Africa and the Middle East. Smugglers often pack desperate families into ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder along the perilous Central Mediterranean route. At least 20,000 people have died in those waters since 2014, according to the IOM.
Those who survived Friday’s disaster were taken to the Tripoli port, where they received medical care for their burns, a common consequence of leaked engine fuel mixing with saltwater, said Safa Msehli, an IOM spokeswoman.
Libyan authorities took the survivors to the Zliten detention center, run by the Tripoli-based government’s Interior Ministry. Migrants rescued at sea and returned to Libya routinely land in detention centers notorious for torture, extortion and abuse. Amnesty International revealed in a report Thursday that thousands of migrants have been forcibly disappeared from unofficial militia-run detention centers.
The shipwreck, the second to be recorded by the U.N. in as many weeks, “signals the need now more than ever for state-led search and rescue capacity to be redeployed and the need to support NGO vessels operating in a vacuum,” said Msehli.
Since 2017, European countries, particularly Italy, have delegated most search-and-rescue responsibility to the Libyan Coast Guard, which intercepts migrant boats before they can reach European waters. Activists have lamented that European authorities are increasingly blocking the work of nongovernmental rescue organizations that patrol the Mediterranean and seek to disembark at European ports.
Libya has seen a lull in conflict for the past few months, after forces allied with the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli pushed out east-based military commander Khalifa Hifter, ending his 14-month campaign to capture the capital. Yet with the halt of hostilities, western Libya has returned to the all-too-familiar rhythm of battles between the dozens of fractious militias around the capital.
On Friday, in the nearby town of Tajoura, two rival armed groups — the Tajoura Lions and the Daman Brigades — fought sporadic battles that killed at least two militia leaders and one fighter, according to an officer with the Ministry of Interior in Tripoli. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the media.
The civilian death toll remains unclear, but the sounds of tanks and heavy weapons echoed through the populated neighborhood, home to Tripoli's main civilian airport and other government buildings. The U.N. Mission in Libya expressed “great concern” that the fierce clashes “resulted in damages to private properties and put civilians in harm's way."
Tripoli's Defense Minister Salah al-Namroush called for the two militias to be disbanded and threatened to “use force” against the groups “if they do not immediately implement a cease-fire.”