DAKAR Scores of Senegalese migrants returned home on Tuesday after they were detained by Libyan authorities and imprisoned for months when they tried to reach Europe illegally.
Some 145 flew back to the Senegalese capital of Dakar once authorities in Tripoli released them, on a charter organized by the International Organisation for Migration, the migrants said.
Senegal is West Africa's oldest multi-party democracy, but many flee its poverty, looking for work in Europe. It is the region's second-biggest source of migrants after Gambia, according to IOM.
From January to March, nearly 1,200 Senegalese arrived in Italy by sea. Nearly 2,000 migrants from various nations have died this year in the Mediterranean.
The men and nine boys who returned on Tuesday's IOM charter shuffled through the airport clutching their possessions in plastic bags and shivering in the early morning chill.
Ousmane Balde, a 22-year-old electrician, said he set out for Italy seven months ago. His journey took him to Mali and Niger, where he worked odd jobs, and then to Libya, using the services of middle men.
"Everyday in Tripoli I was hearing gunshots. I was scared during the first few days. I did not go out of the house for about a week. Then I decided to take the risk," he told Reuters.
Libya is divided between competing governments allied to armed factions fighting for control four years after Muammar Gaddafi was ousted.
Balde said he paid Libyan traffickers some 700,000 CFA francs ($1,163.83) for a spot on a boat to Italy, but it capsized and six passengers drowned, including three other Senegalese.
He was rescued by Libyan officials and locked up with hundreds of other Senegalese who decided to return as the situation in Libya deteriorated.
Balde received a 100,000 CFA stipend from the Senegalese government but said he did not rule out a fresh attempt to reach Europe.
Souleymane Jules Diop, Minister of Senegalese Overseas, said some 2,000 migrants have been repatriated this year. He spoke to the returnees, urging them to warn their friends of the perils of illegal migration to Europe.
(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Larry King)