Libya on Monday said its forces had prevented more than 400 Africans from illegally emigrating to Italy when they intercepted a boat off the coast of the North African country.
“Despite a lack of means, we were able to prevent illegal immigration of people who were heading for Italy,” interim interior minister Fawzi Abdelali told reporters.
Abdelali said the problem of illegal immigration would be treated differently by the country’s new rulers than the way it was tackled by the previous regime of slain dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
“Illegal immigration was a means of pressure used by the former regime to blackmail Europe. Now this issue will be treated differently,” he said, adding that the new Libya will be focused in tackling the issue.
“We expect support from the world” in preventing such trafficking, he added.
In the port of Tripoli some 420 immigrants were being guarded by former rebels who toppled Kadhafi as well as being monitored by interior ministry officials, an AFP reporter said.
Among them were Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Ivorians and Nigerians.
According to General Joma al-Meshri, a group of former rebels and officers intercepted the boat early on Monday 10 miles off the coast of Tripoli.
A commander of the ex-rebels, Khaled al-Bassir, said they had received information about the vessel’s departure, and that three patrol boats had set off to intercept it.
Many of the immigrants said they had become victims of a fraud planned by Libyans to swindle them after they had each paid people smugglers between 1,000 and 1,500 dollars.
They said even Monday’s incident was a set-up.
Forty-year-old Rania, an Ethiopian, said she had been fooled for the third time in a row.
“Each time one takes the boat, a patrol comes to stop and escorts us to the port,” she told AFP.
“You see the captain (of the boat) is still there,” she said pointing to a Libyan the boat at the Tripoli docks.
She said it was Libyans who offered to take them to Europe.
“They hid us for two months on a farm in Tajura (an eastern suburb of Tripoli) and each time they told us we must wait as the weather was too bad to go to the sea,” she said.
“Last night they asked us to board and we had not spent more than two hours at sea when police boats surrounded us and escorted us to the port. I want to leave to Europe. I do not know where they plan to take us,” she said as a Libyan official pressed her to board a bus chartered by the authorities.
A young Nigerian, Emmanuel, said the Libyan officials had taken all their documents.
“They took everything… money, passport, phones. They told us ‘you don’t need all this in Europe’,” he said, accusing the former rebels of “organising this set-up.”
For several years, Libya has been a transit country for hundreds of thousands of African immigrants trying to reach Europe in search of a better life.