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Libya intercepts 113 migrants leaving for Italy amid fighting lull

Libyan coast guard stops three boats and returns them to two western towns away from Tripoli frontline
Roughly 3,500 migrants are at risk from Tripoli fighting (AFP)

The Libyan coast guard has stopped 113 migrants trying to reach Italy over the past two days, the United Nations said on Wednesday, as boat departures resume amid a lull in fighting between rival forces in Libya.

The western Libyan coast is a major departure point for mainly African migrants fleeing conflict and poverty and trying to reach Italy across the Mediterranean Sea with the help of human traffickers.

The UN’s migration agency International Organization for Migration (IOM) confirmed that the migrants had been "returned" to Libya and that its local partner offered them medical screenings. 

"While we follow up to provide needed assistance in the detention centre, we reiterate that Libya is not a safe port and that arbitrary detention must end," the IOM said on Twitter. 

The Libyan coast guard stopped two boats on Tuesday and one on Wednesday, carrying 113 migrants in all, and returned them to two western towns away from the Tripoli frontline, where they were put into detention centres, the IOM said.

A coast guard spokesman said the migrants were from Arab and sub-Saharan African countries as well as Bangladesh.

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Smuggling activity slowed after forces loyal to military commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to take the capital Tripoli, home to Libya's internationally recognised government.

But clashes eased on Tuesday after a push by Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) backed by artillery failed to make progress towards the centre.

Shelling audible in central Tripoli was less intense on Wednesday than on previous days. Three weeks of clashes had killed 376 as of Tuesday, the World Health Organization said.

Among the most vulnerable are about 3,500 migrants and refugees held in detention centres near the combat zone who are at "risk", UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya Maria do Valle Ribeiro said on Sunday. 

Libya, long a major transit route for people desperate to reach Europe, has about 6,000 migrants in official detention centres, according to the IOM.

Human rights organisations have accused armed groups and members of the coast guard of being involved in human trafficking.

Officials have been accused in the past of mistreating detainees, who are being held in their thousands as part of European-backed efforts to curb smuggling. A report in December referred to a "terrible litany" of violations including unlawful killings, torture, gang rape and slavery.

Rights groups have also accused the European Union of complicity in the abuse as Italy and France have provided boats for the coast guard to step up patrols. That move has helped to reduce migrant departures.

The UN and rights groups have repeatedly decried the conditions in which migrants are held in Libya.