TRIPOLI (Reuters) - At least five African migrants died and more were missing off western Libya on Monday after a boat carrying about 140 people capsized and then some migrants refused rescue by the Libyan coast guard and tried instead to swim to a German rescue vessel.
The migrants’ rubber boat overturned some 30 miles off the Libyan coast, said Libyan officials and rescue workers in Tripoli to where the coast guard brought some 45 survivors.
A video obtained by Reuters showed how, during the rescue operation, some migrants tried jumping off the Libyan patrol boat which had rescued them to reach a ship of Seawatch, a German non-governmental organisation, a few metres away.
Some screamed to be allowed to leave the Libyan boat as the German vessel came closer. The Libyans tried to discourage the migrants from trying to reach the German boat, Seawatch said.
The incident sparked mutual recrimination by Seawatch and the Libyan coast guard.
At least five migrants had died, including a toddler, due to the “violent and reckless behaviour of (the) Libyan coast guards,” Seawatch said on its Twitter feed, adding that 58 had been rescued.
“The so-called Libyan Coastguard forced as many as they could into their vessel to take them back to Tripoli,” the German group added.
The Libyan coast guard said an unknown number of people had died after their inflatable boat had sunk and Abu Ajala Amer Abdelbari, a coast guard commander, said the German NGO had undermined its rescue operations by approaching its boat.
“The Seawatch was approaching while we were rescuing migrants,” he said. “This was encouraging the migrants to swim to the Seawatch and a (nearby) French navy ship.”
The survivors brought to Tripoli were from West African countries including Nigeria and Senegal.
“I wanted to reach Italy. I don’t know what to do now,” said Dora Onoruyi, a 23-year old arts student from the southern Nigerian city of Benin known as hub for human traffickers to smuggle women to Italy where they often end up as prostitutes.
“I see no future in Nigeria, there are no jobs,” she said, standing next to a group of weeping Nigerian survivors.
Libya is the main departure point for migrants trying to travel by boat to Europe. But numbers crossing to Italy have fallen sharply since July due to a drop in people smuggling and increased activity by Libya’s European-backed coastguard.
Reporting by Ulf Laessing in Tripoli and Steve Scherer in Rome; Writing by Aidan Lewis and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Richard Balmfortjh