BEIRUT — Libyan militant group Tarek Bin Zeyad Brigade (TBZ) Friday released around 80 of the 110 migrants they had been holding for ransom, activists close to the incident confirmed to L'Orient Today Saturday. The Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian nationals departed by sea from Abdeh in Lebanon's Akkar governorate, and were held captive on Aug. 18 after reaching Maltese waters.
TBZ took the 110 migrants, which included 37 children, to Misrata, northwestern Libya, then transfered them to a Benghazi detention center, close to the city's port.
Reportedly TBZ, which is affiliated with General Khalifa Haftar’s forces, initially demanded a ransom of $2,000-3,000 per captive.
Amnesty International has accused the group — which is among the largest and most influential factions of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces — of committing war crimes.
Though such hostage-taking incidents reportedly happen on a regular basis in the Mediterranean, this is the first time TBZ has targeted a migrant boat from Lebanon.
Released in Libya
Alarm Phone, an activist network that alerts and urges authorities to rescue distressed migrants in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, and Lebanese lawyer Mohammad Sablouh, who regularly represents migrants in danger and has followed the incident closely, confirmed the migrants' release to L'Orient Today.
Sablouh, who has been coordinating with multiple lawyers in Libya in an attempt to facilitate the migrants' release, added that the rest of the migrants are expected to be released Saturday, based on testimonies provided to him by the captives' family members.
He was told the remaining migrants had had an altercation with the militants, which included a "fistfight," and are currently trying to sort out the issue.
Around 80 of the 110 Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian nationals (most of whom are Syrian) were released in Libya and given "$10" per person, Sablouh said. He told L'Orient Today that 37 of the migrants are children, 14 women and 59 men. It remains unclear whether the freed migrants will remain in Libya or return to Lebanon.
Late on the evening of Aug. 10, two boats, each carrying 110 migrants, departed from the coast of Akkar, north Lebanon, to attempt a treacherous sea journey toward Italy, Sablouh said.
The Lebanese Army stopped one of the boats the next day, while the second was able to escape Lebanese waters.
Upon reaching Malta's Search and Rescue (SAR) area, around 3 P.M. Beirut time, Aug. 18, a statement by Alarm Phone said, the migrants reported to Alarm Phone that a ship flying a Libyan flag was pursuing and firing on their vessel, injuring one person and damaging one of the boat's engines.
Sablouh told L'Orient Today the migrants' families had reported nine injuries.
Sablouh and Corinna Zeitz, a volunteer and spokesperson for Alarm Phone, confirmed for L'Orient Today on Friday that TBZ gunmen took the 110 migrants captive on Aug. 18. Migrants' family members told Alarm Phone and Sablouh that they received calls from a Libyan number asking for $2,000-3,000 ransom per prisoner.
The man who called the family members used a WhatsApp account with a profile picture, which L'Orient Today has seen, showing a masked individual carrying a rifle and standing before a flag bearing TBZ's slogan.
'A precarious case'
Wael, Syrian national who asked not to mention his surname for security reasons, told L'Orient Today he and his three children (including a two-month-old infant) were aboard the second migrant boat that the army apprehended on Aug. 11. His wife and three of their other children, aged 12, 10 and two, were aboard the second vessel and were detained in Libya. He confirmed to L'Orient Today Saturday that his wife and three children were released in Libya but that he was uncertain about their next move.
Wael told L'Orient Today that he and his family had decided to flee Lebanon by boat because "it was impossible to live here anymore."
"This is the first time we deal with such a case," Sablouh said Friday, "and the repatriation mechanisms remain vague to us.
"It is a precarious case," he added, "as we are also not sure whether Lebanon is willing to [allow them to return] ... There are many question marks."
A spokesperson for Lebanon's Foreign Affairs Ministry said he has no information.
The Ministry said on Aug. 17 that "non-Lebanese" emigrants who left Lebanon informally and are sent back to Lebanon will not be received in the country "regardless of their point of departure."
'No more human rights in the EU'
Alarm Phone's spokesperson told L'Orient Today that this kidnapping "is not a random or arbitrary incident," saying it is not the first time that TBZ has brought people to Libya, as the"Libyan militia regularly cruise in Maltese Search and Rescue [SAR] zone, where similar incidents occurred as well as illegal pushback from Maltese waters to Benghazi."
Zeitz pointed to a similar incident in May when 500 migrants (including Syrian, Egyptian Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals) were pushed back from the Maltese SAR and put in a Libyan prison after they had an engine failure, according to a joint statement by Alarm Phone, Sea-Watch and Mediterranean Saving Humans.
"It is part of an ongoing war against migration that is collaborated between European member states and Libya, whichever group is representing Libya," Zeitz said, adding that this recent incident "falls under a bigger umbrella of abductions in Libya and shows that there no longer human rights in the EU anymore."
'Most dangerous migration route in the world'
The number of migrants attempting life-threatening informal sea journeys from Lebanon to Europe has increased this summer, after a low at the beginning of the year, UNHCR Lebanon spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled recently told L'Orient Today.
The Lebanese Army and security forces have foiled many attempted sea migrations this summer.
Abou Khaled pointed to Lebanon's crippling economic crisis that started in 2019, among other factors, for the uptick in dangerous sea crossings. In the past year dozens have died on what the UN's migration agency calls the "most dangerous migration route in the world."