Security officials told The Associated Press that under a deal backed by Italy, Libya’s struggling UN-proposed government in Tripoli has paid militias implicated in trafficking in Sabratha to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.
AP added that the move was clear in the fact two months have seen a sharp drop in crossings, a welcome sign for EU leaders desperate to stem the flow of migrants.
"But the drop also appears to be in large part due to the deals struck with the two most powerful militias in the western Libyan city of Sabratha, the biggest launching point for the mainly African migrants making the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean. The militias, one known as “Al-Ammu” and the other as Brigade 48, are headed by two brothers from the area’s large al-Dabashi family." AP reported.
It added that at least five security officials and activists based in Sabratha said the militiamen were known to be behind smuggling of migrants.
The policy has raised an outcry among some in the Libyan security forces and activists dealing with migrants, who warn that it enriches militias, enabling them to buy more weapons and become more powerful. In the country’s chaos, the militias can at any time go back to trafficking or turn against the government, they say.
The Washington Post said Italy worked directly with the militias and Italian officials met the leaders of the militias.
"Bashir Ibrahim, the spokesman for Brigade of the Martyr Anas al-Dabashi, said that a month ago the two forces reached a “verbal” agreement with the Italian government and Al-Serraj’s government to combat trafficking."
He said the Brigade of the Martyr Anas al-Dabashi, made up around 400 to 500 fighters, is affiliated with Serraj’s Defense Ministry while Brigade 48 falls under the Interior Ministry.
Since then, the militias have stopped migrant boats from leaving the shores around Sabratha and have told smugglers to end their work. In return, the militias receive equipment, boats and salaries, Ibrahim said, according to AP.
On its Facebook page, the militia said on Aug. 19 that it had coordinated between the Italian Embassy and Sabratha’s hospital for the delivery of three shipments of medical aid from the Italian government. It said the first shipment had arrived at the hospital.
Sabratha is 67 km away from western Tripoli and it is a vital jumping off point for illegal immigrants from Libya to Europe.