The U.N. refugee agency says it has evacuated 149 refugees and asylum-seekers from the strife-torn Libyan capital of Tripoli and brought them to safety in Italy.
UNHCR transported the evacuees to a site near Rome, it said Thursday. The evacuees — from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia — included 65 children. Thirteen were younger than a year old.
The evacuees had spent months in grave conditions in detention centers in Tripoli, UNHCR said. With the security situation worsening, the U.N. collaborated with Libyan and Italian authorities to move them.
Somalia's ambassador to Libya, Muhiyadin Mohamed Kalmoy, said that amid Tripoli's volatility, UNHCR was better able than foreign diplomats to locate African refugees and move them to safety.
"The Somalis who were among the evacuees were indirectly contacting us about their situation," Kalmoy told VOA's Somali Service on Friday, "but we had no official contact from UNHCR regarding those evacuated to Rome."
Kalmoy said his government was working "to secure and prove the identity of our Somali citizens" and to help UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) process cases so individuals could return "to Somalia or a third hosting country."
He said he did not know how many Somalis were among the evacuees.
Kalmoy said his government estimated some 5,000 to 6,000 Somalis overall have migrated to Libya, noting "nobody knows the exact number since it is open border." He said the government, working with IOM, has returned "more than 200 of them who wanted to go back home."
'Dire living conditions'
The ambassador said he worried about the safety of Somalis remaining in detention centers in southern and western parts of Tripoli.
"There still [are a] good number of African migrants stranded in southern and southwestern parts of Tripoli, including Somalis," Kalmoy said. "They always contact us and tell us that they are in dire living conditions and would like to be sent back to their home countries.
"There is still a ruthless network of smugglers holding a large number of African migrants they had kidnapped. We are always hearing very painful stories from them," he added.
Many of those evacuated Thursday suffer from malnourishment, according to Jean-Paul Cavalieri, UNHCR chief of mission in Libya. They were to receive food, clothing and medical care, then were to be transported to Norway with help from IOM.
Their evacuation followed another one earlier this week, in which 62 urban refugees from Syria, Sudan and Somalia were transferred from Tripoli to UNHCR's Emergency Transit Center in Timisoara, Romania, the agency reported.
Nearly 600 people have died in recent clashes in Libya, according to the World Health Organization. Last week, two ambulance drivers were killed in shelling attacks.