ISIS may be far weaker in Libya than many had thought

The Guardian reports: Libyan forces claim to have reached the centre of the coastal city of Sirte, Islamic State’s key stronghold, meaning the jihadi group may have lost all territorial control in the country.

The speed of the apparent rout of Isis after three weeks of heavy fighting is extraordinary given US intelligence was suggesting only two months ago that the group had 6,000 fighters in the city and was starting to pose a threat to neighbouring Tunisia.

“The armed forces entered Sirte. They are currently in the centre, where clashes continue with Daesh,” said Mohamad Ghassri, spokesman for the forces of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

“The operation will not last much longer. I think we’ll be able to announce the liberation of Sirte in two or three days,” he told AFP.

Although it is still possible that the Isis retreat is tactical, most observers believe the military offensive has revealed Isis to be far weaker in Libya than many had thought. [Continue reading…]

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Militias in Libya advance on ISIS stronghold of Surt with separate agendas

The New York Times reports: Fighters aligned with Libya’s United Nations-backed unity government are advancing along the Mediterranean coast toward the Islamic State stronghold of Surt, signaling the first major assault on territory that, since last year, has become the terrorist group’s largest base outside of Iraq and Syria.

Two separate militia forces have fought their way toward the city in recent days, attacking from both the east and the west, in apparently uncoordinated attacks that have reduced the length of Libyan coastline controlled by the Islamic State to 100 miles from about 150 miles. On Wednesday, one of the militias claimed to have seized control of Surt’s power plant, 20 miles west of the city.

Those victories occurred in sparsely populated areas, and it was unclear whether the militias had either the strength or the will to push into Surt, which is thought to be heavily fortified and also harbor several thousand foreign fighters. But the advance did signal a new setback for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, at a time when it is already under concerted attack in Falluja, Iraq, and in parts of Syria.

Analysts and diplomats warn that while the offensive addresses the West’s biggest concern in Libya, it also risks destabilizing the fragile peace effort by fostering violent competition between rival groups.

“Only a year ago, these two groups were battling for control of the so-called oil crescent, and lobbying rockets and shells at one another,” said Frederic Wehrey, a Libya specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who visited that country recently. “Now they are converging on a common enemy, but the great fear is what comes next.” [Continue reading…]

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The Arab revolution of 2011 is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by dictators and jihadists

The Irish Times reports: In late 1400 and early 1401, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane left “pyramids of skulls, like those constructed by Islamic State today” across Syria, recalls the French Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Filiu.

Tamerlane had already destroyed Aleppo. The great Arab historian and statesman Ibn Khaldun talked to him for 35 days, in the hope of saving Damascus. “The whole time, Tamerlane knows he’s going to massacre everyone in the city,” Filiu continues. “He uses the negotiation to divide and rule, to massacre more people, faster.”

Filiu wants Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, to read Ibn Khaldun, for it’s impossible not to see a parallel with the behaviour of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Filiu is an Arabist, historian and former diplomat who served as an adviser to a French prime minister, defence minister and interior minister. His “added value”, he says, is history. He will address members of the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin on The Jihadi Challenge to Europe next Monday, May 23rd, and debate The Spectre of Global Jihad with the author Shiraz Maher that evening at the International Literature Festival Dublin.

In his most recent book, From Deep State to Islamic State; The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, (published by Hurst in London) Filiu concludes that the Arab revolution of 2011 – a term he prefers to “Arab spring” – is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by the remnants of dictatorships in collusion with jihadists.

Over the past century, Filiu writes, the Arabs’ right to self-determination was “denied by colonial intervention, ‘hi- jacked’ at independence by military regimes, trampled on by the double standards of the war for Kuwait and the ‘global war on terror,’ and perverted in the UN, where peoples are represented by the regimes who oppress them”.

No other people have faced “so many obstacles, enemies and horrors in the quest for basic rights”, Filiu says. [Continue reading…]

In January, Filiu spoke about the price being paid because of President Obama’s failure to uphold ethical principles.

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Agreement that could lead to U.S. troops in Libya could be reached ‘any day’

The Washington Post reports: The U.S. military’s top general said Thursday that the Libyan government is in a “period of intense dialogue” that could soon lead to an agreement in which U.S. military advisers will be deployed there to assist in the fight against the Islamic State.

“There’s a lot of activity going on underneath the surface,” said Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We’re just not ready to deploy capabilities yet because there hasn’t been an agreement. And frankly, any day that could happen.”

Dunford spoke to a handful of journalists while returning to the United States from Brussels, where he met with military chiefs this week from numerous NATO nations. There is interest among some NATO nations in participating in the mission, Dunford said, but the specifics of who and what would be involved remain unclear. The operation will likely focus on training and equipping militias that pledge loyalty to Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, the leader of the new Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), which is backed by the United Nations. [Continue reading…]

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Hell on Earth: Life under ISIS in Libya

The Daily Beast reports: Amjad bin Sasi was a young man who enjoyed Western clothing, a fashionable haircut, and even the odd drink.

When ISIS seized control of his hometown of Sirte on Libya’s Mediterranean coast last year, bin Sasi was one of tens of thousands consigned to living in hell on Earth. His torment lasted less than a year—he was shot in the back of the head by an ISIS executioner at the age of 23.

The crime for which he was arrested? Cursing.

This is the reality of life under the control of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Libya, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, which includes allegations of crimes against humanity, war crimes, mutilation, beatings, and extra-judicial killings.

The U.S. military has drawn up plans for an assault on the ISIS stronghold, but President Obama has refused to sanction any military intervention.

The residents of Sirte live in constant fear of being caught breaking the strict codes of conduct imposed by their ISIS rulers. Every neighbor could be an informant for the Hisba morality police, and harsh penalties are routinely handed down by religious judges after unfair trials.

“Life is hell for people in Sirte,” Letta Tayler, the author of the HRW report, told The Daily Beast. “People told me they are living in constant fear. Many of the men and women I interviewed in Misrata [a nearby city] started crying when they spoke about having to go back because they had no place to go. People were living in absolute terror.”

One of the extraordinary things about life in this ISIS outpost is that even those who bow their heads and follow the hardline rules are forced to live in misery. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS, growing stronger in Libya, sets its sights on fragile neighbor Tunisia

The Washington Post reports: The families arrived at the cemetery in the night carrying the bullet-riddled corpses of their sons and brothers, residents recalled. One by one, the bodies were placed in unmarked graves, outcasts even in death.

The dead men had been fighters for the Islamic State. All Tunisians, they had crossed into Libya to join the terrorist group’s affiliate there. In March, they returned with other radicalized Tunisians in an attempt to seize Ben Guerdane, a smuggling hub 20 miles from the border. Dozens of the militants were killed in fierce clashes with security forces, including at least 10 who were raised here in the southeastern corner of the country.

Only eight were buried in the cemetery.

“Some families refused to take the bodies,” said Samir Naqi, a senior police official.

That Ben Guerdane, long known as an incubator for jihadists, was not captured was a victory for Tunisia. But the attack and its aftermath revealed the North African nation’s fragility as it struggles to contain the toxic fallout from the Arab Spring uprisings five years ago, and represented an escalation in the Islamic State’s ambitions.

Tunisians form the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. But with U.S. and Russian airstrikes hammering them there, and travel bans and stricter border controls in place, more Tunisians are joining the Islamic State in Libya. Increasingly, Libya’s conflict is spilling into Tunisia, the only country to emerge as a functioning democracy after the revolutions. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Leading foreign ministers from Europe and the Middle East are to meet in Vienna on Monday under the joint chairmanship of the US and Italy to discuss how to bolster support for the UN-backed Libyan government in the face of deepening splits in the country over political legitimacy, oil resources and Islamic State.

Elaborate plans to send thousands of Italian-led troops to the area are either on hold, or have been abandoned. But the west is still desperate to find ways to strengthen the political authority of the Tripoli-based government since it will help create a single military Libyan force able both to defeat Isis and tighten the control of refugees leaving the lawless coastland for Italy.

Special forces from the US, UK, France and Italy are operating in various parts of Libya, sometimes backing different military forces and hindering efforts to reunite Libyan politics behind the UN government of Fayez al-Sarraj. [Continue reading…]

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Struggling to fight ISIS in a fractured Libya

Frederic Wehrey writes from Sabratha, Libya: Ahmed “Amu” Dabbashi, the 28-year-old leader of a militia in this seaside town near the Tunisian border, proudly unfurls a black Islamic State flag, seized during late-February raids on safe houses of ISIS, as the group is also known. He shows me a captured arsenal, too: truck-borne explosives, detonators, crates of ammo, crew-served machine guns, and identification cards of foreign fighters.

Days earlier, American warplanes had bombed an Islamic State training site at a nearby house. Then, Amu tells me, “we decided to cleanse our town.” In the raids that followed, fighters for the so-called caliphate struck back, assaulting a police station and cutting the throats of several officers. Scores of youths perished in gunbattles.

Elsewhere across Libya, disparate factions are trying to hold the line against ISIS, often tenuously. The terrorist group is most entrenched in the central city of Sirte. Refugees fleeting Sirte tell me that ISIS extorts businesses and stops traffic to conduct executions.

In late March, a new presidential council — formed under the auspices of a U.N.-brokered unity agreement — arrived with great fanfare in the capital of Tripoli. Washington and its allies had hoped this would provide a foundation for a military campaign against ISIS. But after an initial burst of public enthusiasm, the council is struggling to exert its authority.

The fight against Islamic State faces daunting challenges. First, there still is no unified military structure through which the U.S. and Western allies can channel assistance. A powerful eastern faction allied with Gen. Khalifa Haftar remains hostile to the unity agreement and has tried to sell oil independently from Tripoli. Other militias, even if nominally supporting the new government, remain beholden to towns, tribes and power brokers.

Thus, Western special forces must work with militia surrogates in any operations against Islamic State. But this is risky: Assisting these armed groups could rekindle old rivalries and further reduce the incentives for national reconciliation.

Militias have figured out that signing up for the campaign against Islamic State is the best way to get legitimacy and attention. Whether or not they intend to use outside support solely against ISIS is another story. Many still regard their local rivals as the pressing concern. In some cases, the West may find them unsavory partners: traffickers, hard-line Salafists, tribal supremacists, military officers with authoritarian and anti-Islamist leanings.

This is evident in Sabratha, where Amu’s extended family has had longtime links with smugglers and jihadists. In the capital of Tripoli, a Salafist militia leader lets me tour his prison’s rehabilitation center, where Islamic State suspects are thrown in with drug addicts for undefined stretches with no due process. In a trip to Benghazi last fall, I saw how neighborhood militias carried out what amounts to personal and tribal vendettas, all under the cover of combating Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. establishes Libyan outposts with eye toward offensive against ISIS

The Washington Post reports: American Special Operations troops have been stationed at two outposts in eastern and western Libya since late 2015, tasked with lining up local partners in advance of a possible offensive against the Islamic State, U.S. officials said.

Two teams totaling fewer than 25 troops are operating from around the cities of Misurata and Benghazi to identify potential ­allies among local armed factions and gather intelligence on threats, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive mission overseas.

The insertion of a tiny group of U.S. personnel into a country rife with militant threats reflects the Obama administration’s worries about the Islamic State’s powerful Libyan branch and the widespread expectations of an expanded campaign against it. For months, the Pentagon has been developing plans for potential action against the group, which has at least several thousand fighters in the coastal city of Sirte and other areas. And the U.S. personnel, whose ongoing presence had not been previously reported, is a sign of the acceleration toward another military campaign in Libya.

The mission is also an illustration of President Obama’s reliance on elite units to advance counterterrorism goals in low-visibility operations. [Continue reading…]

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Timing not yet right for Libya intervention, Italy says

The Washington Post reports: Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti, one of the central figures in allied deliberations on war-torn Libya, said Wednesday that the conditions are not yet right to launch a Western military operation to help stabilize that country.

The Italians have been among the most vocal European powers to insist that Libya’s shaky unity government must shore up domestic support — and then request international assistance — before any allied operation could unfold.

The new Libyan government, installed this past March and backed by the United Nations, is making strides, Pinotti said in an interview with The Washington Post. But she also warned of deepening complications.

The unity government not only is confronting a threat from Islamic State insurgents, but also a challenge from unruly militias and rival factions with which it still needs to build more support, she said. On Tuesday, for instance, factions in eastern Libya sought to block the unity government from exercising control over exports of oil produced in the country’s east. [Continue reading…]

Abdulrazag Elaradi writes: In Libya in 2011, an American-led coalition helped to topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship. Unfortunately, the coalition’s lack of engagement with the country’s transition allowed a political void to form that a number of groups have since then fought to fill.

The ensuing mess has made parts of Libya a hotbed for militants inspired by the Islamic State. This in turn has worsened the country’s security crisis, as opposing groups have claimed the right to govern under a banner of secularism.

The truth is that Libya’s struggle is not between Islamists and secularists. This tedious framework for interpreting Arab politics hides the complexity of Libya’s situation. Almost all of the major competing factions in Libya include some number of Islamists, liberals and militia supporters.

The real division in the country is between those who want Libya to move forward via the newly installed unity government, and those like the strongman Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who took control of a large part of the east after the fall of Colonel Qaddafi and is loath to give up his one-man rule of his fief, based in the coastal city of Tobruk. [Continue reading…]

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Refugee crisis focus shifts to North Africa

Der Spiegel reports: Abdul Kadir Mohamed Moalim has seen hell. Originally from Somalia, a country ravaged by civil war, he traveled via a refugee camp in Yemen and then to Libya. From there, he crossed the Mediterranean to Europe.

On April 16, an overloaded wooden vessel capsized on the high seas and only a few people on board managed to survive. Moalim was one of them. Now, he is in Kalamata, the Greek city that rescuers brought him to. In an interview conducted there by the BBC, he was asked if he had a message for those still in Africa who are waiting for their opportunity to flee to Europe. His answer: “It’s so dangerous,” he said. “You have to believe in your country and … stay where you are.”

Moalim bore witness to a tragedy in which up to 500 Somalis, Sudanese and Ethiopians drowned, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). That would make it the worst such accident of the last 12 months. In April 2015, a fishing boat sank while on its way from Libya toward Italy and up to 800 men, women and children died. Then, too, most of the victims were from sub-Saharan Africa.

Europe continues to focus primarily on the war refugees coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is often forgotten that increasing numbers of people from countries south of the Sahara are trying to head north as well. In 2015 alone, according to the European Union border control agency Frontex, 108,000 Africans made their way illegally to Europe. That represents an increase of 42 percent over 2014 — and experts believe the total is but a harbinger of what Europe may soon be facing. [Continue reading…]

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Europe’s failure on refugees echoes the moral collapse of the 1930s

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Patrick Kingsley writes: In 1938, representatives from 32 western states gathered in the pretty resort town of Evian, southern France. Evian is now famous for its water, but back then, the delegates had something else on their minds. They were there to discuss whether to admit a growing number of Jewish refugees, fleeing persecution in Germany and Austria. After several days of negotiations, most countries, including Britain, decided to do nothing.

On Monday, I was reminded of the Evian conference when British MPs voted against welcoming just 600 child refugees a year over the next half-decade. The two moments are not exactly comparable. History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself. But it does echo, and it does remind us of the consequences of ethical failure. Looking back at their inaction at Evian, delegates could claim they were unaware of what was to come. In 2016, we no longer have that excuse.

Nevertheless, both in Britain and across Europe and America, we currently seem keen to forget the lessons of the past. In Britain, many of those MPs who voted against admitting a few thousand refugees are also campaigning to unravel a mechanism – the European Union – that was created, at least in part, to heal the divisions that tore apart the continent during the first and second world wars.

Across Europe, leaders recently ripped up the 1951 refugee convention – a landmark document partly inspired by the failures of people such as the Evian delegates – in order to justify deporting Syrians back to Turkey, a country where most can’t work legally, despite recent legislative changes; where some have allegedly been deported back to Syria; and still more have been shot at the border.

Emboldened by this, the Italian and German governments have since joined David Cameron in calling for refugees to be sent back to Libya, a war zone where – in a startling display of cognitive dissonance – some of the same governments are also mulling a military intervention. Where many migrants work in conditions tantamount to slavery. Where three separate governments are vying for control. And where Isis runs part of the coastline.

In Greece, Europe’s leaders have forced the bankrupt government to lock up all arriving asylum seekers – and then reneged on a promise to help care for them, or move them to better-resourced countries elsewhere on the continent. The result is a dire situation on the Greek islands, where the world’s richest continent has contrived to jail babies, and then deny them access to adequate amounts of milk formula.

In Denmark, asylum seekers are forced to hand over valuables to pay for their stay, and volunteers have been prosecuted as smugglers for giving them lifts. In America, where boatloads of refugees were turned away from US ports in the 30s, more than 30 governors have refused to accept Muslim refugees. Some called for an outright ban on anyone fleeing a war that is ironically the partial result of catastrophic mistakes in American foreign policy over the past two decades. [Continue reading…]

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Italy’s plan to combat Libyan migrant smugglers could mean chasing shadows

Patrick Kingsley writes: Though migration levels from Libya are no higher than they were last year, European governments are terrified that the closure of the refugee route from Turkey to Greece will lead to a fresh surge through the north African country towards Italy.

Over the past few days, these fears prompted western leaders to discuss a two-pronged response. First, Rome proposed the deportation of Italy-bound migrants back to war-torn Libya. Then Barack Obama agreed at a meeting with European allies to add US ships to ongoing anti-smuggling operations in international waters off the Libyan coast.

Italy’s defence minister, Roberta Pinotti, told Italian media that a Nato-led anti-smuggling mission could be in operation as early as July. But such haste may have both practical and ethical pitfalls. For a start, western navies may not be able to do much against smugglers if the latter stick to international waters. By this point, senior smugglers have left their boats in the hands of either expendable juniors, or co-opted migrants.

Even if Nato gets approval from Tripoli to enter Libyan waters, they will still struggle to make an impact. Most migrant boats from Libya are rubber inflatables that carry no smugglers and are boarded from the country’s shore. Only a ground presence could stop their departure: by the time these dinghies are out at sea, there is little a naval mission can do to apprehend the smugglers who sent them. [Continue reading…]

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Failed state: Can a unity government succeed in divided Libya?

Der Spiegel reports: This may be the only thing you need to know about the situation in Libya: For security reasons, the headquarters of the United Nations Special Representative for Libya is situated 500 kilometers (311 miles) away from Tripoli in the Tunisian capital of Tunis. Martin Kobler’s office is located in a non-descript building in the city’s Les Berges du Lac diplomatic quarter.

For trips to Libya, he has an 18-seat propeller plane at his disposal, parked at the nearby airport. He uses it to commute several times each month to Libya. But sometimes, he isn’t given permission to land, for no apparent reason. On such occasions, the plane remains grounded, along with Kobler, in Tunis.

On a recent Sunday in April, Kobler has invited us to a meal in the restaurant Au Bon Vieux Temps in a posh suburb of Tunis. The view of the Mediterranean is spectacular. A slight man with a warm glint in his eyes, Kobler, 63, was once chief of staff to former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. He has also served as German ambassador to Cairo and Iraq and, most recently, as the UN special representative to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Today he has one of the most difficult jobs in the world. His task is to help create a state out of Libya at the behest of the international community. The fact that Libya was never truly a state, even under dictator Muammar Gadhafi, who was toppled in 2011, doesn’t make things any easier. Considering what he’s up against, Kobler is pursuing his mission with astounding optimism.

The situation in Libya is important for Europe for two reasons. First, because Islamic State (IS) is continuing to spread unhindered in the civil war-torn country. Second, because one of the most important routes for migrants making their way to Europe runs through Libya. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions on a prominent Libyan politician as part of a broader Western effort to force Libya’s warring factions to accept the authority of a unity government backed by the United Nations.

The Treasury Department said it was adding the politician, Khalifa al-Ghweil, the leader of a self-declared government in the capital, Tripoli, to its sanctions list and would freeze any assets he might have in the United States.

The sanctions are a boost to the new unity government, which was formed under the auspices of the United Nations in December, has strong support from Western countries that are desperate to end years of turmoil in Libya. It also enjoys the allegiance of Libya’s national oil company, the central bank and some of the militias that guard the country’s oil fields. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: The United Nations envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, has called for western forces to help combat Islamic State in partnership with the country’s new government.

With Barack Obama due to meet four European leaders in Germany on Monday for a summit that is likely to focus on Libya, Kobler said foreign powers should offer training and military support, combined with an end to the UN arms embargo.

“The Daesh [Isis] expansion can only be stopped militarily,” he said. “There is a consensus that a united Libyan army needs training; the lifting of the weapons embargo is very important. We need the most modern weapons to finish Daesh.”

Isis has been stepping up its offensive against Libya’s oilfields. An assessment circulating in foreign missions reports that in the last two weeks the group has broken out of its base in the coastal town of Sirte in three thrusts. [Continue reading…]

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Think Merkel’s got problems now? Wait until she takes on Libya

Arne Delfs writes: Angela Merkel is pushing the boundaries of her realpolitik.

A leader whose pragmatism trumps ideology every time, the German chancellor faces international criticism, alienated voters and a rift in her coalition because of her choices in combating the refugee crisis.

That might just be the start of her difficulties. With the European Union deal she pushed with Turkey beginning to deter illegal migration, Merkel is shifting her focus to the surge in refugee flows across the central Mediterranean to Italy. And that means engaging with Libya and Egypt.

Merkel will host U.S. President Barack Obama and the leaders of the U.K., France and Italy in Hanover, western Germany, on Monday to discuss Libya and migration, Syria and Islamic State, along with what the White House described as additional steps NATO allies must take to address the “challenges on Europe’s eastern and southern periphery.”

German intelligence suggests some one million refugees are waiting in the Maghreb countries to cross to Europe, causing alarm in the Chancellery in Berlin, according to an official from Merkel’s party who asked not to be named discussing internal deliberations.

German foreign policy is now “driven by the domestic imperative to bring down the number of refugees: this is Merkel’s live-or-die issue,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Germany is set to become “much more active” in North Africa, and “for Merkel this is a challenge, because you have to be cautious about doing things that the public doesn’t understand.” [Continue reading…]

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UN says up to 500 migrants may have drowned on their way to Italy

The Washington Post reports: As many as 500 migrants seeking a better future in Europe may have drowned last week in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy, U.N. refugee officials said Wednesday.

If true, the toll would make the incident one of the worst tragedies involving refugees and migrants over the last year.

On Tuesday, a team from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spoke with some of the 41 survivors of the alleged accident who had arrived at Kalamata, a Greek town on the Peloponnese Peninsula, the U.N. agency said in a statement.

“If confirmed, as many as 500 people may have lost their lives when a large ship went down in the Mediterranean Sea at an unknown location between Libya and Italy,” said the agency.

The survivors included 37 men, three women and a 3-year-old child. They were from Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. All were rescued by a merchant ship that then brought them to Greece. [Continue reading…]

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