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Nearly 9,000 migrants rescued in Mediterranean over weekend

At least 900 migrants have died or gone missing while attempting to reach Europe by sea so far this year
Migrants during a rescue operation in the central Mediterranean, off the coast of Zawiya in Libya, 14 April (Reuters)

Nearly 9,000 mainly African migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean this past long weekend, after setting out from Libya on unseaworthy boats to try to reach Europe, UN aid agencies said on Tuesday.

"This was an overwhelming search and rescue operation by all sides involved," Babar Baloch, spokesman of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news briefing.

International Organisation for Migration (IOM) spokesman Leonard Doyle said that better spring weather had encouraged smugglers to take migrants out of detention centres in Libya.

At least 900 migrants have died or have gone missing while attempting to reach Europe by sea so far this year, while 36,000 have been rescued, against 24,000 last year, Doyle said.

Some 36,000 migrants have been rescued, against 24,000 at this time last year, he said.

The migrants, many from Nigeria and Senegal with some from Bangladesh, are among an estimated 20,000 held by criminal gangs in irregular detention centres in Libya, the International Organisation for Migration said.

On release, they pay to board the overcrowded boats, often just inflated rubber vessels that could not cross the Mediterranean, in the hope of starting a new life in Europe.

Libyan fishermen found the bodies of 28 migrants on Tuesday who appeared to have died of thirst and hunger after their boat broke down off the coast of Sabratha city, a ministry of interior official said on Tuesday.

Interior Ministry security unit commander Ahmaida Khalifa Amsalam told Reuters the 28 migrants, including four women, had been found after sunset by the fishermen who towed the vessel to shore. The victims were buried together in a cemetery for migrants, he said.

"It is obvious that better spring weather has encouraged smugglers to take people from their detention centres," said IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle.

"The smugglers have clearly taken them to sea and pushed them out in the hope and belief that they would be rescued."

More than 35 vessels, including private charity boats, the European Union border agency Frontex, the Italian and Libyan coast guards and 12 merchant ships were involved in rescuing dozens of vessels, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said.
IOM reported earlier this month that growing numbers of African migrants passing through Libya are traded in what they call "slave markets" before being held for ransom, forced labour or sexual exploitation.
"So there's a full-on economy of trafficking or trading in migrants who think they are going to a better life in Europe and end up effectively in a gulag of exploitation," Doyle said.
Distressing images of African migrants being plucked from heaving seas or the coffin-strewn aftermath of major sinkings have become a regular feature of television news bulletins since the crisis began spiralling out of control four years ago.