October 29, 2019 / 9:43 PM / 21 days ago

Migrants released amid fighting in Libyan capital seek refuge with U.N.

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Hundreds of migrants were released on Tuesday from a detention center in the Libyan capital Tripoli as heavy gunfire rang out across the city, witnesses and the United Nations said.

FILE PHOTO: Migrants are seen at the Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency in Tajora shelter center in Tripoli, Libya April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah/File Photo

At least 200 of the migrants made their way to a center for processing resettlement cases set up in Tripoli by U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, where they were seeking access, the agency said.

Reuters reporters saw the migrants near the center surrounded by guards and covering their heads from heavy rains, about two hours after residents started posting photos of the migrants walking through the streets.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), another U.N. agency, said 600 had been released from the Abu Slim center. “Their safety is of major concern as armed clashes continue in Tripoli,” it said.

Tripoli has been hit by renewed violence since April, when the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) began battling forces aligned with the internationally recognized Tripoli government for control of the capital.

Migrants have been repeatedly caught in the crossfire during clashes in Tripoli, and Abu Slim is located in the south of the capital, close to the front lines. Heavy artillery fire could be heard from center of the city on Tuesday.

It was unclear why the migrants had been released or where they might be transferred. Officials could not be reached and journalists were not allowed to speak to the migrants.

Several thousand migrants are held in detention centers officially run by the Tripoli government. In practice, the centers are controlled by armed groups and there is widespread abuse inside them, according to migrants, aid works and rights defenders.

Libya, with an estimated migrant population of 640,000, has been one of the main departure points for migrants trying to reach Europe. Boatloads of migrants leave frequently from Libya’s north-western coast, though the number attempting the crossing has dropped sharply since mid-2017.

Recently, several detention centers have been closed following international pressure, and migrants intercepted at sea by Libya’s EU-backed coastguard have been freed rather than being taken to detention centers.

The UNHCR center, known as the Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF), has been plagued by problems since opening late last year.

More than half of the 880 migrants at the GDF entered “informally”, some after fleeing another Tripoli detention center hit by an air strike that killed more than 50 in July, UNHCR Special Envoy Vincent Cochetel told Reuters last week.

“Recently, the GDF has been severely over-capacity, leaving us unable to utilize it for its original purpose of evacuating people of out harm’s way,” he said.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Mahmoud Mourad, Aidan Lewis and Lisa Shumaker

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