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Migrants Say Libya Militias Conscripted Them to Clean Arms

Debris covers the ground after an airstrike at a detention center in Tajoura, east of Tripoli in Libya, Wednesday, July 3, 2019.
Debris covers the ground after an airstrike at a detention center in Tajoura, east of Tripoli in Libya, Wednesday, July 3, 2019.

Migrants who survived the deadly airstrike on a Libyan detention center said Thursday they had been conscripted by a local militia to work in an adjacent weapons workshop.

The decision to store weapons at the facility in Tajoura, to the east of Tripoli, may have made it a target for the self-styled Libyan National Army, which is at war with an array of militias allied with a weak, U.N.-recognized government in the capital.

The Tripoli government has blamed Wednesday's pre-dawn strike, which killed at least 44 migrants and wounded more than 130, on the LNA and its foreign backers. The LNA, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, says it targeted a nearby militia position but denies striking the hangar where the migrants were being held.

Hifter, whose forces control much of eastern and southern Libya, has received aid from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The U.N. and aid groups have meanwhile blamed the tragedy in part on the European Union's policy of partnering with Libyan militias to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean Sea to seek a better life in Europe. Critics of the policy say it leaves migrants at the mercy of brutal traffickers or confined in detention facilities near the front lines that often lack adequate food and water .

The dangers facing desperate migrants were highlighted further Thursday as the U.N.'s migration agency reported that a boat carrying 86 migrants from Libya sank in the Mediterranean Sea overnight and only three people were confirmed as survivors.

The International Organization for Migration said 82 were missing from the shipwreck late Wednesday off the Tunisian city of Zarzis. Earlier this week, another boat from Libya made it to the Tunisian port of Sfax with 65 people on board.

Around 6,000 migrants, most from elsewhere in Africa, are being held in Libya's detention centers after being intercepted by the EU-funded coast guard. In Tajoura, hundreds of migrants are held in several hangars next to what appears to be a weapon cache.

Two migrants told The Associated Press that for months they were sent day and night to the workshop inside the detention center.

``We clean the anti-aircraft guns. I saw a large amount of rockets and missiles too,'' said a young migrant who has been held at Tajoura for nearly two years.

Another migrant recounted a nearly two-year odyssey in which he fled war in his native country and was passed from one trafficker to another until he reached the Libyan coast. He boarded a boat that was intercepted by the coast guard, which later transferred him to Tajoura, where he was wounded in Wednesday's airstrike.

``I fled from the war to come to this hell of Libya,'' he said. ``My days are dark.''

The migrants requested that their names and nationalities not be published, fearing reprisal.

Many of those who died in the attack were crushed under debris as they slept. Pictures shared by the migrants show the hangar reduced to a pile of rubble littered with body parts. More than 48 hours after the strike, relief workers were still pulling bodies from the rubble while the wounded lay on bloody mattresses in a courtyard, receiving medical aid.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid said Thursday that it received reports of guards firing on the migrants as they tried to flee after the airstrikes. A migrant told the AP it was not clear if the guards fired at the migrants or in the air.

Despite the international outrage following the airstrike, aid groups said there are no plans to evacuate the migrants and that nowhere in Tripoli is safe.

``We are not aware of plans to relocate the migrants that remain in Tajoura,'' said Safa Mshli, a International Organization for Migration spokeswoman. ``Migrants intercepted or rescued at sea should not be returned to Libya, where they will face the same inhumane conditions.''