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Gaddafi ‘rounding up migrants’ on boats to unleash them onto Europe

Tunisian immigrants disembarking at Lampedusa early on Monday. Photo: Roberto Salomone/AFP

Tunisian immigrants disembarking at Lampedusa early on Monday. Photo: Roberto Salomone/AFP

The Maltese and EU authorities are looking into claims made by Libyan protesters that the regime is rounding up African migrants on boats to unleash them onto Europe.

One of the most prominent revolutionary internet websites, www.libyafeb17.com, has claimed boats were being prepared to leave Na’imah, a small town in Misurata, directly south of Malta.

“(Muammar) Gaddafi is rounding up the peaceful African labour force in Libya and sending them to a coastal area called Naeemah (Na’imah). He plans to send them via boat to Spain and Italy to demonstrate that, without him, illegal immigration will increase,” said a report posted on the website.

The Maltese authorities were alerted to these reports and sources close to the Armed Forces of Malta said they were investigating the claims and “monitoring the situation along with EU partners”.

When contacted, a spokesman for the website said the information was received from Al Jazeera corres-pondents on the ground in Misurata. He said the information tallied with reports that the number of Africans fleeing Libya to Tunisia and Egypt over the past days had decreased dramatically.

“Gaddafi wants to illustrate to the world his warnings are serious; that if he leaves illegal immigration from Africa will swamp Europe,” the spokesman said.

He said a representative of the National Transitional Council was in Europe to explain to ministers and people in power that Col Gaddafi’s claims would not mater-ialise.

The website quoted sources saying two boats were seen in Na’imah preparing to take on migrants. No indication was given about the size of the boats.

When contacted, the AFM would not say whether the reports that the regime was rounding up African migrants on boats to unleash them onto Europe were true or not, saying “matters concerning ongoing AFM operational matters are not discussed or disclosed as a matter of policy”.

However, an AFM spokesman said they would continue to “maintain constant vigilance around Maltese waters” and monitor the developments in North Africa.

“Malta remains committed to work with its partners and their assets deployed in theatre of operations, especially where humanitarian operations are concerned,” he said.

When contacted, the Justice Ministry said that “irrespective of the veracity of these reports”, the conflict in Libya “considerably increases” the possibility of people fleeing for their lives towards the southern frontier countries of the EU like Greece, Malta and Italy.

“Bearing this in mind, we have been supporting calls for solidarity between EU member states when such a migratory movement commences. Progress has been registered and the EU, following a Council meeting of Home Affairs Ministers, has already set aside emergency funding to assist in this regard.”

This principle was also reinforced last week during a visit by Frontex executive director Ilkka Laitinen to discuss the possibility of operating a mission out of Malta should the need arise.

The UN refugee agency confirmed there were very few sub-Saharan Africans crossing the Tunisian and Egyptian borders with Libya but said this was probably because they were afraid of leaving their homes and being mistaken for mercenaries.

They could not verify the reports that migrants were being placed on boats by Col Gaddafi’s regime.

Reuters reported that African migrants were being coerced into becoming mercenaries. The news agency said people in refugee camps confirmed their houses were raided by soldiers who beat and robbed them of their possessions and identity papers. They were then offered money to fight protesters and if they refused they were told they would never leave the country.

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