Libya’s coast guard recovered dozens of bodies of Europe-bound migrants Friday, a day after roughly 150 people went missing when their boats capsized in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency in the Tripoli said up to 350 migrants were on board boats that capsized Thursday off the town of Khoms, around 75 miles east of Tripoli, in an incident described by a U.N. official as the "worst Mediterranean tragedy" of the year to date.
The migrants include nationals from Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan and Libya.
Libyan officials said more than 130 migrants have been rescued since Thursday, and at least a dozen were taken to a hospital in Khoms while the rest were transferred to different detention centers located near the front lines of conflict between rival Libyan factions.
One of the survivors, from Eritrea, said his vessel started to capsize after an hour of sailing. Most of the migrants on board were women, he said, and most of them drowned.
“All of them (who drowned) were ladies… only two girls rescued themselves,” he said.
Surviving migrants from the disaster were transferred to the Tajoura detention center flattened by an airstrike earlier this month, despite U.N. objections.
Charlie Yaxley, a UNHCR spokesman, objected on Thursday to transfers, saying, “this has to stop” and that the facility should be closed.
“Our joint-call to close Tajoura detention center does not seem to be heard. This is putting intentionally the life of these people at risk,” Vincent Cochetel, the refugee agency’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean tweeted Friday.
However, the U.N. migration agency said later Friday the 84 migrants were turned back from the detention center, and they were instead being “released gradually” into the town of Tajoura.
Amnesty International called on European Union leaders to “show some courage” and reverse their decision to halt migrant rescues in the Mediterranean. The rights group called on European nations to change “their approach to a humane one which saves lives and doesn’t condemn those who survive to detention in Libya.”
“People are still risking their lives to come to Europe,” said Amnesty’s Massimo Moratti.
The European Union has in past years partnered with Libya to prevent migrants from making the dangerous journey by sea to Europe. Rights groups say those efforts have left migrants at the mercy of brutal armed groups or confined in squalid detention centers that lack adequate food and water.
After the NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, Libya became a major conduit for African migrants and refugees seeking a better life in Europe. Traffickers and armed groups have exploited Libya’s chaos since his overthrow, and have been implicated in widespread abuses of migrants, including torture and abduction for ransom.
Fox News' Morgan Cheung and the Associated Press contributed to this report.