CAIRO — Gunmen attacked a detention center holding hundreds of migrants in Libya’s capital, where fighting has raged between rival militias since a military commander launched an offensive earlier this month, a rights group said Wednesday.
Amnesty International said armed men raided the Qasr Ben Ghashir detention facility, some 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) south of Tripoli’s city center, on Tuesday. It said video footage of the aftermath of the attack shows three people with apparent gunshot wounds and others lying wounded on the ground with bloody bandages.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack or what motivated it.
Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, said Tuesday that the U.N. aid agency had received reports that the detention center, holding some 890 refugees and migrants, was “breached by armed actors.”
The U.N. says some 3,600 refugees and migrants are held in facilities near the front lines of fighting between the self-styled Libyan National Army and other heavily-armed militias. Five detention centers are in areas already engulfed by fighting, while six more are in close proximity to the clashes.
“The situation in these detention centres is increasingly desperate, with reports of guards abandoning their posts and leaving people trapped inside,” Dujarric said, adding that one facility has been without drinking water for days.
Libya became a major conduit for African migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe after the uprising that toppled and killed long-ruling dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Thousands have been detained by armed groups and smugglers, who often subject them to brutal treatment and extortion.
“These refugees and migrants should not even be detained in the first place,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty. “This incident demonstrates the urgent need for all refugees and migrants to be immediately released from these horrific detention centres where they are held arbitrarily in inhuman conditions and routinely subjected to abuse.”
The latest fighting in Libya pits the LNA, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, against rival militias allied with a weak, U.N.-supported government. The World Health Organization says the fighting has killed more than 270 people, including civilians, and wounded nearly 1,300. It says more than 30,000 people have been displaced.
Hifter is allied with a rival government and in recent years has been battling Islamic extremists and other militias across eastern Libya. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and France have supported his efforts there.
But on Wednesday, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said Moscow wants Hifter’s forces to halt their advance on the capital. He told Russian news agencies that Moscow is asking the LNA to cease fire and “restore a dialogue and political efforts” promoted by the United Nations.
Russia has also maintained ties with the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli, but has recently been seen as favoring Hifter. Khairi al-Tamimi, a top official in Hifter’s administration, was visiting Moscow on Wednesday.
He said the operation to retake Tripoli would require no more than two or three more weeks. In an interview with the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, he said the LNA supports the idea of a national election but that such a vote can only be held after the capital is “liberated.”
Al-Tamimi was attending a conference organized by the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow.
Hifter, who served as a senior military officer under Gadhafi but defected in the 1980s, portrays himself as a strong hand who can stabilize Libya after years of chaos. His opponents view him as an aspiring dictator and fear the return of one-man rule.
Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed.