TRIPOLI, Libya: The Libyan coastguard said Monday it had intercepted around 700 Europe-bound migrants in territorial waters off Sabratha in the west of the North African country.
“The coastguard intercepted 700 migrants on board two wooden boats Friday three nautical miles from the town of Sabratha,” some 70 kilometers (40 miles) west of Tripoli, coastguard spokesman General Ayoub Qassem told AFP.
He said people smugglers on the beach in the area opened fire on coastguards, without causing any casualties.
“Fire was returned, causing the smugglers to take flight,” Qassem said.
He said most of the people detained were from sub-Saharan Africa, but also among them were Egyptians, Syrians, Tunisians and Palestinians.
European countries are trying to curb the flow of illegal migrants, including by boosting their support for the Libyan coastguard.
Since Friday, more than 1,360 migrants have been rescued by the Italian coastguard, and three bodies recovered.
Despite winter conditions, dozens of makeshift boats packed with migrants still set off from Libyan shores bound for Italy.
People smugglers have exploited the chaos gripping Libya since the 2011 uprising that overthrew dictator Moamer Gadhafi to traffic migrants across the Mediterranean.
It is big business for the smugglers who cram migrants into boats that are small and unsafe for the perilous journey to Italy just 300 kilometers (190 miles) from Libya.
Thousands of migrants try each year to make the crossing, but many drown when their boats founder.
In the absence of an army or a regular police force in Libya, several militias act as coastguards but are often being accused of complicity or even involvement in the lucrative trade.